Drug Treatment Services

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:02 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 5:02 pm, 16th July 2019

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeff Smith on an excellent introduction to the debate and on the vital points he made.

Last week, one of my constituents, Chelsea Bruce, died of a drugs overdose. She was 16-years-old. She is another figure to add to the 1,187 deaths in Scotland in the last year. It is particularly poignant because this time last year I presented Chelsea with an award at her school, where I talked about the potential of the future and what young people could go off and do in the world. To think that that girl now lies dead for entirely preventable reasons sickens me. I wonder about the damage that has been caused to her family and the trauma that has been caused to her friends, who now live in a mixture of grief and fear of what drugs can do to them.

Chelsea might not have come to harm had she been able to have the pills tested, to have had a testing kit or to have sourced the pills from a supplier who had had them tested. There are now very high-strength MDMA pills in circulation. Sometimes it is not MDMA but other substances that mimic some of the effects of MDMA; that could have been a factor in Chelsea’s death. That is something we need to understand in this House and respond to with great urgency.

I have been following the campaign for drug policy reform closely since my election, and ensuring that a public health approach is at the heart of how we begin to properly tackle this devastating blight on our country is critical. I am personally convinced of the merits of decriminalisation of people who use drugs and minor drug possession for personal use, based on international examples, most notably in Portugal. I am pleased that the introduction of safe drug consumption facilities is Labour party policy and we will be campaigning to ensure that we go even further in our next manifesto.

However, I am alarmed at the lack of impetus to put in place practical policies now, which could save lives in my city where drug-related deaths have reached epidemic levels. They are now 1,000% higher than the European average; that is a public health emergency by any definition. While many are big on rhetoric, our public policy is years behind where it should be in addressing this appalling crisis of death and misery.

The Home Office and the Lord Advocate have been intransigent about the piloting of safe drug consumption in Glasgow. A model that has a worldwide track record of saving lives has been discussed. While the Home Office refuses to change the obsolete Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief law officer, claims that a letter of comfort is insufficient to avoid possible prosecutions of NHS staff who might work in such a facility or those who would use it, unless the law is changed by the UK Government.

The chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, David Liddell, believes that much more can be done to facilitate reform within current legislation. Last week, I suggested to the Scottish Affairs Committee that the Lord Advocate is being too risk averse and conservative in approach. I have now written to the Lord Advocate to challenge him on that point. It is certainly no good for Scottish Government Ministers and Glasgow City Council to abrogate their responsibility for this public health crisis by conveniently blaming Westminster, as unco-operative and unhelpful as it might be on this issue, when they have cut victim services in Glasgow by over a quarter in recent years, causing the closure of rehabilitation services and needle exchanges, as well as the end of central Government funding for the national naloxone programme.

While a heroin-assisted treatment pilot will launch in Glasgow later this year, it will be highly targeted and the thresholds for access will be difficult to reach for most of Glasgow’s problematic opiate and cocaine users, who are often polydrug users. That is why I have also asked for the Lord Advocate’s advice on an additional innovative model that could be adopted in Glasgow, a safe prescribing clinic, where instead of illicit drugs of an unknown purity being brought into the facility for use under clinical supervision— as in a drug consumption room—pharmaceutical diamorphine and cocaine can be prescribed freely for use in a supervised clinical environment. As well as bringing all the benefits of DCR, it removes the stranglehold that criminal gangs have over the drugs supply chain and removes the financial dependency that many people with drug problems face to feed their habit, and the crime that goes with it. Combine that with supervised drug facilities like the Loop in Bristol and WEDINOS in Wales, and we could be on to something that reduces harm.

Saving one life is one life that is worth it, and we should take urgent action now.