Glasgow, Scotland, will soon host the first sanctioned safe consumption site in the United Kingom. The Scottish government is supporting and funding the pilot facility.
On September 27, the Glasgow Integration Joint Board ratified the proposal to create a safe consumption site (SCS, also known as overdose prevention centers) in the city’s east end, operated by a community health clinic.
According to a design plan, the site will include an injection room plus separate areas for reception, consulting, interview, recovery and aftercare. An earlier plan also included a room for people to smoke drugs, but that has now been removed, reportedly because of legal issues with Scottish anti-smoking laws and technical challenges with ventilation. Planners say it may be added in the future.
The facility will be housed in Alcohol and Drug Recovery Services at the National Health Service (NHS) office in Glasgow, run by Dr. Saket Priyadarshi.
Scotland has been facing the highest rate of overdose deaths in Europe. A report by the NHS and Glasgow City Council meanwhile estimated that 400-500 people regularly inject drugs in public places in central Glasgow.
“What I’m struck by, despite my happiness, is the tragedy of the lives lost that could have been saved had we had facilities for the last 10, 15, 20 years.”
Harm reductionists are welcoming the SCS development, but not without regrets.
“What I’m struck by, despite my happiness this facility is finally opening, is the tragedy of the lives lost that could have been saved had we had facilities like this for the last 10, 15, 20 years in key locations in the UK,” Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told Filter. His organization has supported opening an SCS in the UK for over 20 years. “We know they save lives and if we had [them], there would be tens or hundreds of people alive now.”
Some weren’t prepared to wait. In September 2020, a group of volunteers in Glasgow launched an unsanctioned SCS in a mobile van, and ran it for nine months. During that time, they supervised and recorded nearly 900 injections, and intervened in nine overdoses. Most participants primarily used cocaine, sometimes in combination with heroin. What’s more, 65 percent of those who visited the van to inject had buprenorphine or methadone prescriptions—indicating the need for SCS despite the availability of those opioid use disorder medications in the UK.
The new SCS will be kind of legal. The UK government, formed by the Conservative Party or “Tories,” has not approved SCS and continues to oppose them—even after an August report by the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee reviewed the science and recommended pilot SCS like the one in Glasgow.
“The UK government has actively undermined anyone who has tried to roll out or advocate for this service.”
In response, the government Home Office stated that there is “no safe way to take illegal drugs.”
“The UK government has actively undermined anyone who has tried to roll out or advocate for this service,” Rolles said. “And they’ve made all the same ridiculous anti-science arguments used against harm reduction for decades. They’ve said it’s condoning use, it encourages use, that there’s no safe way to use—all these strawman or untrue arguments.”
Such attitudes are not just a Tory problem, however. Leaders of the main opposition, the left-of-center Labour Party, have also made anti-drug statements, bizarrely claiming that cannabis smoke is ruining people’s lives and suggesting that the government should “name and shame” people who buy drugs.
But Scotland’s government is run by the Scottish National Party, which supports the pilot SCS. And a key moment in making it happen came when Scotland’s top law enforcement officer decided to take a hands-off approach, despite UK law.
On September 11, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain stated, “I would be prepared to publish a prosecution policy that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offenses committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility.”
She made clear that this did not amount to her approving the facility, and added, “Police Scotland retain the operational ability to effectively police the facility and ensure that the wider community, those operating the site and those using the facility can be kept safe.”
Despite its disapproval, the UK government in Westminster will stay out of it.
“What that did is it allows the service to function if they’re working in agreement with local police,” Rolles explained. “The police will not intervene in the provision of this service. So while it’s technically illegal, it’s de facto decriminalized. That situation only applies to Scotland at the moment. We don’t have a similar level of legal guidance applying to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
Despite its disapproval, the UK government in Westminster will stay out of it. Scottish Secretary of State Alister Jack, confirmed that “if the Scottish government and the Lord Advocate decide to proceed with a pilot on drugs consumption rooms, the UK government will not intervene.”
Scotland suffered a record 1,339 overdose deaths in 2020. The total has decreased since then but is still the highest, per capita, of any European nation. Overdose deaths trended upwards since the late 1990s, and starting in 2014 they set record highs every single year until 2021.
According to National Records data reviewed by the BBC, most people who overdosed used two or more drugs in combination, such as opioids and benzodiazepines. Unlike in the United States, deaths are not primarily related to fentanyl, which has not yet arrived in the European drug supply on a large scale. Most overdose victims in Scotland are men, and their average age has risen in recent years, to 45. There is a strong correlation between overdose rates and areas with higher poverty.
While Glasgow’s pilot will be the first sanctioned SCS in the UK, over 200 SCS already operate in 14 countries worldwide, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Decades of research show that SCS reduce overdose deaths and hospital visits, help prevent needle sharing and transmission of bloodborne diseases like HIV, don’t increase drug use or crime, and do increase people connecting to treatment and support services. No SCS has ever recorded an overdose death on site.
Photograph of East Harlem SCS by Helen Redmond
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.