'Bold' action needed to tackle drugs deaths

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susan aitken
Image caption,
Susan Aitken called for bold new approaches to the drugs crisis

Bold action is needed to tackle the drugs deaths emergency in Scotland, the leader of Glasgow City Council has told a summit.

Susan Aitken called on the UK government to support new approaches such as safe consumption rooms in an attempt to get addicts off the streets.

The SNP councillor was addressing the Scottish event at the SEC in Glasgow.

It comes just 24 hours before the UK government hosts its own event in the same venue.

Both aim to find solutions to the public health emergency that has seen drug misuse deaths reach record levels.

Figures show there were 1,187 drug deaths in Scotand in 2018 and the numbers for last year could be even higher.

Glasgow had the highest number of drug deaths, at 280, although the rate of death was slightly higher in Dundee.

Ms Aitken told delegates that the drug problem was most acute in Glasgow but the city could lead the way in finding solutions.

She said there was international evidence that safe consumption rooms were successful in getting drug users off the streets and into an environment where they would engage with support services.

The Glasgow City Council leader said there were about 500 people who regularly injected drugs in lanes, car parks and public toilets in the city centre.

Giving them somewhere to safely take drugs would reduce the risks to them and cut down on anti-social behaviour and discarded needles, she said.

"New approaches are necessary to target those most at risk," Ms Aitken said. "Glasgow has to be bold and effective."

The UK government's Home Office has refused to allow the Glasgow plans, saying a range of offences would be committed, including possession and supply of controlled drugs and knowingly permitting the supply of a controlled drug on a premises.

Analysis by BBC Scotland social affairs correspondent Chris Clements

Image caption,
Glasgow wants to open a safe consumption room to get users of the streets

Whichever way you look at it, this is the worst drug crisis to hit the UK - not just Scotland - for a generation.

Both the UK and Scottish governments agree that tackling addiction and rising drug death levels should be a priority.

However, going into two days of summits, both remain at odds over how best to help some of the country's most vulnerable addicts.

At the heart of the Holyrood agenda is a public health approach, exemplified by the drastic reduction in drug deaths in Portugal.

It involves decriminalising possession of small amounts of drugs, wrap-around services and potentially the introduction of so-called "fix rooms" - facilities where addicts can inject drugs safely under supervision.

But to do this, says the Scottish government, it requires devolution of drug policy and changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. The UK government's Home Office are reluctant.

As well as Tory unwillingness to appear "soft" on drugs, Home Office policing minister Kit Malthouse has already said divergence in drug policy north of the border would be encouraging for English gangs seeking more opportunity to flood Scottish towns with illegal drugs.

And as if to prove the point, Merseyside Police's Operation Medusa this week targeted cross-border "county lines" outfits in Liverpool, Cumbria and Perth.

Timing is everything - the arrest of more than 40 dealers will be used by the UK government to show that the best way to tackle the scourge of addiction in our communities is by stronger enforcement and a crackdown on crime.

Those against devolving drug policy also point to figures showing drug possession convictions have plummeted in Scotland. It is, they say, de facto decriminalisation.

However, the experts say this is not enough. Already two separate Commons Select committees pointed to Portugal, decriminalisation and that same public health approach as the way forward in dealing with drug addiction.

The next two days may yet surprise us and by Thursday, there could be compromise.

But the fear expressed by recovery charities is that this could be another political point-scoring exercise. If that's the case, the ones losing out are the ones dying.

Review of drugs

UK drug misuse deaths. Rate per million of population.  .

Scotland's Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said his summit would make valuable contributions which would help inform the Scottish input to the UK Drugs Summit on Thursday.

The UK government summit, at the Scottish Events Campus, will be chaired by Home Affairs minister Kit Malthouse.

At the event, Prof Dame Carol Black, the woman tasked with carrying out an independent review of drugs policy, will present her findings.

The latest figures for drug misuse deaths in England and Wales showed a large rise but the rate was four times higher in Scotland.

Last summer, a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction highlighted Scotland as a "point of concern" because it had the highest overdose mortality rates in Europe.

'We were denied the chance to save our son'

By BBC Scotland social affairs correspondent Chris Clements

Image caption,
Linda and Garry Donnan's son died after an overdose

Dundee is repairing "fractured" services after a damning report found they had failed a generation of addicts in the city.

Immediate plans include better connections between services and charities helping users, as well as same day prescribing and following-up with those who suffered non-fatal overdoses within 72 hours.

However, one family feel the plans came too late for their son.

The parents of Garry Donnan criticised police for failing to disclose a previous overdose the day before their son died.

The 29-year-old was found unresponsive in the second floor bin area of Elders Court tower in Dundee's Lochee area on Thursday 12 September.

It is understood he was revived by medics using Naloxone, which temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

After refusing to attend hospital, police officers spoke with his partner and parents - but told them he had suffered a head injury rather than an overdose.

Image caption,
Garry Donnan died after a drug overdose in Dundee in September

Garry returned to Elders Court the next day to buy drugs. He died in the first floor bin area of the tower and lay undiscovered for two days.

His father, Garry Snr, told BBC Scotland's The Nine: "Because they told me it was a fall, I believed them because it was the police.

"I still think I was denied the chance the chance to save my son, because I'd have went and got him and taken him away from Dundee for a few days."

Mr Donnan added: "I still say to this day that if the police had been honest or said, 'I'm sorry, we can't tell you', I would've guessed what it was."

In a response to the family, police state: "Your son agreed for his partner to be contacted but refused to provide consent for police to relay that the circumstances were drug-related, that police only inform her that he fell and bumped his head."

Chief Inspector David McIntosh said officers had treated Garry "with fairness and compassion, but were legally-bound to respect his decision not to disclose this information".

He added: "I do agree that a better course of action may have been to inform the family that Garry had not consented to us telling them the full circumstances."