Scotland plans drug testing service aimed at saving lives

Illicit drug users in Scotland’s major cities could soon be offered a drug safety testing service that will tell them what substances they are really taking, and which it is hoped will save lives.

Drug checking services – where people can check the chemical make-up of their drugs without fear of arrest – have been available at some festivals and clubs in England for several years.

Testing by the Loop has found the strength of drugs can vary widely and can be cut with a wide range of substances from plaster of paris to dangerous stimulants. International studies have claimed they have prevented overdoses.

Drug checking service

But now the Scottish Government’s drug deaths taskforce is developing a proposal to launch a “drug checking service” in substance misuse services in at least three Scottish towns and cities.

It is understood that Home Office licences, required to run the services, would be forthcoming and that both Police Scotland and the Scottish Courts are supportive of the proposal. Funding is expected to be granted in coming weeks.

Professor Catriona Matheson, chair of the drug death task force, confirmed that the plans had been supported “in principle.”

“The proposal is being finalised and agreements with potential sites are underway,” she told The Ferret. “The benefit of a drug checking service is the ability to identify if the drugs in a preparation are what you think they are.

“This will help enormously with the street benzodiazepine situation that is so problematic in Scotland. However it will also be useful for opiates and checking if heroin is in fact heroin.”

Matheson said as negotiations were ongoing she was not able to give details on the locations but added “we are always aware of places at high risk in deciding where to target interventions”.

Drug overdose deaths

The WEDINOS project already offers drug testing in Wales and last year the Home Office granted a licence for a small-scale pilot in Weston-Super-Mare. It is hoped that the Scottish plans will have a far larger scope than the English trial.

“Drug checking has a strong evidence base including from England as well as internationally,” Matheson added. “This is being supported by the task force because we believe there is the potential to save lives as part of a programme of initiatives.”

In recent years a rapidly rising number of people have been dying from drug overdoses with figures released last July showing 1,187 people had died in 2018 following an overdose, an increase of 27 per cent from the previous year.

Figures for 2019 have been delayed, prompting outrage. They are due out at the end of the year according to the National Records of Scotland.

In 2018 57 per cent of deaths involved overdoses of etizolam and other ‘street’ benzodiazepines. It is claimed that users are playing “Russian roulette” with their lives when taking these because of the unknown quality of the various substances used in their production.

Over the last two years The Ferret has reporting on the concerns of agencies about the escalating deaths associated with polydrug use including so-called street benzos, and the increasingly desperate calls for action to address the issue.

In pictures: Glasgow’s drugs crisis in the time of coronavirus

Dr Andrew McAuley, a researcher on drug use at Glasgow Caledonian University who will be on the steering group overseeing the drug checking services, said it was a “positive step” which would be particularly important in terms of addressing the dangers associated with street benzodiazepines.

He added: “People report taking handfuls of tablets at a time that may look like regular prescribed benzodiazepines such as diazepam. But nine times out of ten, they probably have very little diazepam in them. It will be largely be etizolam and other uncontrolled drugs, which have different effects.

“It is important because we know there is an increase of the involvement of street benzodiazepines in drug related deaths.

“Drug checking can also act as an early warning system for any dangerous substances newly appearing on the market. Fentanyl would be the obvious example. We know that’s had a massive impact in North America in terms of mortality but there’s no reliable evidence that it is available here. Drug checking has the potential to alert us early if it does appear and to act quickly to reduce the risk of harm.”

Drug checking will has the potential to alert us early if Fentanyl does appear and to act quickly to reduce the risk of harm. Dr Andrew McAuley

But McAuley claimed engagement work with drug using populations would be critical to ensure it was used.

“A lot of people wouldn’t come to a drugs service with substances on them because it is traditionally a place you go and get urine tested to make sure you are drug free, in relation to the management of your methadone prescription, for example,” he added. “And using illicit drugs on top of a script [prescription] in the past has had punitive connotations for some.

“So any new drug checking service has to work with people who use drugs to build trust over time to help normalise it alongside other harm reduction initiatives.”

Yet he insisted that once people had built up trust, it would help people to make safer choices, perhaps choosing to take less or it, or smoke their drugs instead of injecting.

Keeping people safer

Activist and former street outreach worker Peter Krykant, who hopes to launch a safer drug consumption van next week allowing drug users to inject their drugs more safely, welcomed the addition of the service.

Krykant, who will be technically breaking the law when he launches the mobile harm reduction service based on similar ones in Denmark and Canada, said that offering drug testing would be another positive way of preventing the loss of life.

“I think it’s a great idea and will keep people safe,” he added. “One of the biggest dangers with benzos is that people don’t know what they are getting from batch to batch.” He claimed drug dealers would be less likely to sell people rogue substances if they knew they would be tested.

However he also stressed that better treatment services were also needed, including better access to residential rehab. Currently Scotland has only about 40 funded rehab beds according to campaigning organisation, Faces and Voices of Recovery (Favor) UK.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the recommendations coming from the drug deaths task force and we are working with them, and partners, to implement these as a matter of urgency.

“Taskforce members are developing a proposal in relation to the possible introduction of a Home Office licensed drug checking service in Scotland. Early exploratory work about how this could operate is underway.”

Cover image thanks to cagkansayin/istock

Good journalism changes things

The Ferret was established in 2015 with a mission to publish fearless, high quality journalism.

Since then thousands of people have joined us. We hope you will too.

We're a cooperative with places reserved for both our writers and subscribers on the board.

We're independently regulated, and work hard to keep our overheads down. This means that all the money we get from our subscribers is invested directly in original public interest news.

We're avowedly non-partisan so we can treat everyone fairly. We don't publish click bait and we don't do favours for political parties or powerful vested interests. We do help to change things.

Or see your other subscription options.

Got a story idea?

Tell us what you'd like us to write about next and vote up the best ideas.