The Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland supports our view that what we face in terms of drug deaths is an emergency, and that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be amended to allow a range of responses focused on public health. The need for that type of service, and the evidence that supports it, was further reinforced during the inquiry.
Such facilities can save lives, so I urge the United Kingdom Government to take the necessary steps either to support a pilot facility or to devolve the powers to Scotland so that this Parliament can take action to save lives.
“routinely ignores the evidence on what would be the most effective approach to reducing problem drug use”, as well as blocking proposals to introduce drug consumption rooms in Scotland, despite witnesses saying that
“the case for such a facility in Glasgow is amongst the most compelling in Europe.”
Does the minister agree that that is a shameful approach?
Yes, I strongly agree. I just do not understand how the UK Government, which has acknowledged the benefits of such facilities, can stand in the way of saving lives. There is a strong body of evidence from a number of countries that such facilities prevent fatal overdoses and encourage engagement with services.
Furthermore, a range of health professionals and experts from across the UK gave evidence saying that such facilities are the most important thing that Glasgow could do. The UK Government’s own advisory group, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, supports their introduction, and in recent weeks two UK Parliament committees have strongly recommended that they be introduced.
There are more than 20,000 people in Scotland with hepatitis C, with 10,000, we believe, having not been diagnosed. HIV also remains a public health challenge. We know that drug consumption facilities can help us to tackle those public health challenges and that they can, ultimately—as the minister said—save lives.
Does the minister therefore agree with me that, whatever Government we end up with at Westminster in December, it must either treat the issue with the urgency that it warrants or, better still, devolve the necessary powers to this Parliament?
I absolutely agree. I call on the incoming UK Government to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or to devolve the powers that will allow this Parliament to take a range of initiatives that are focused on public health, which will save lives.
The proposals could save lives across the United Kingdom. I think that the UK Government should be taking a public health approach to drugs everywhere in the UK, but if it will not do that, I ask it, please, to devolve the powers so that this Parliament can make the decisions.
The Scottish Affairs Committee report noted the benefits of de facto decriminalisation programmes that exist elsewhere in the UK. The Lord Advocate has acknowledged that he has the power to extend the scope of Police Scotland’s current de facto decriminalisation policy to drugs other than cannabis. Given that committee’s endorsement of such programmes, is the minister supportive of an extension, and will he commit to working with the Lord Advocate to make it a reality?
That is one of the areas of work that the drug deaths task force is addressing. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is part of it, so that we can consider what more we can do within the powers that we have. It is important that we look further afield, too. What more could we do? We should use every possible lever, either within the powers of this Parliament or under the powers of Westminster, to save lives.
I will follow on from Monica Lennon’s question. It was not just the Lord Advocate who made the case: Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson said that Police Scotland could consider a diversion scheme that is wider than the system of recorded police warnings. Such schemes are currently applied by Thames Valley Police and Durham Police. Can the minister make a commitment to Parliament to the Government taking specific action to pursue that option?
It is always important to remember the differing responsibilities of the Parliament, the Government and the Crown Office in such matters. As I said to Monica Lennon, it is important that the Crown Office is part of the drug deaths task force so that we can consider how we can make a difference.
There is also a wider question of whether we can examine models of decriminalisation from other parts of the world. It is appropriate that this Parliament can have such discussions, when we consider what has happened in Portugal, for example, when it comes to saving lives. There has been a massive turnaround of the situation there.
I assure Liam McArthur that the Crown Office is part of the drug deaths task force because it wants to help to determine the solutions.
When I last met the minister, with the Rev Brian Casey in Springburn, to discuss the drug deaths crisis, Mr Casey and I expressed our deep concern about the relative ease and affordability of purchasing a pill press to mass produce potentially lethal so-called street Valium. We hope that there can be action in that area. Will the minister update me on action that the Scottish Government can take on that?
We know that criminal gangs in Scotland are using such machines to produce vast quantities of the street benzodiazepines that are having a devastating effect on communities across Scotland. I am fully committed to taking any possible action that might help to save the lives of those who are most at risk through their drug use. I have instructed my officials to explore what options are available under current devolved powers to tackle the sale and regulation of the machines, for which I hope that I have support from across the chamber.