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Scotland will open the UK’s first safer drug consumption facility – Bristol should be next

Glasgow, where the UK’s drug death crisis is worst, has overcome opposition from Westminster to open a potentially life-saving overdose prevention centre. What does this mean for other cities wanting to tackle drug-related harms?

Illustration: Joe Watson-price

Opinion

Scotland just got permission to open the UK’s first official overdose prevention centre (OPC)in Glasgow, at the sharp end of the UK’s drug death crisis.

Could Bristol follow suit? In a word, yes. But first, what are OPCs (also known as safer drug consumption facilities), how do they prevent drug deaths and how did Glasgow get its plans approved?

The Scottish Government and Scottish NHS have wanted to open official OPCs, which are used in many countries, since 2016. There’s a huge evidence base proving they can prevent drug deaths, backed by heavyweight health bodies and the UK Government’s own experts.

Instead of hurriedly injecting drugs in the street, or alone in a hostel room, people can use a clean, safe space, supervised by trained staff. They can be small and based on existing services, large standalone facilities, or mobile units.

No one dies, because any overdoses are treated immediately. Access to treatment services, injection wound care and housing support rebuild people’s health and lives, and can reduce drug use. Communities see fewer discarded needles and less pressure on health services, and save money. 

A clear path to overdose prevention centres

The UK Government has consistently opposed OPCs, saying there is no legal framework to open one, and that it would not change the law to allow them. It’s a huge boost to anyone wanting an effective, compassionate approach to drugs that Scotland’s chief prosecutor has now said people using an authorised OPC will not be prosecuted, so police will not arrest them. So Glasgow’s facility, which has cross-party support in Scotland, can open. 

Bristol City Council has also long recognised the benefits, and said it wants to open an OPC, but claimed it couldn’t because the UK Government said no. Happily, that problem is now gone.

Westminster announced it will now not interfere with the Glasgow OPC. Keir Starmer also says he’ll respect the wishes of the Scottish Parliament should Labour take power in next year’s general election. So the same should be true for the Welsh Government, and other city councils and mayors across the UK too.

Yet Bristol City Council is saying it still can’t because “OPCs are still illegal in England”. I’m happy to tell them that just as Glasgow is opening one without a change in the law, so can Bristol.

Police discretion

In fact it could be easier here. Under Scotland’s legal system, Police Scotland are legally obliged to stop any criminal activity they see, unless directed by the chief prosecutor not to. That’s not the case in England and Wales. Our police have far more discretion over which offences they act on, and don’t need a direction from our Crown Prosecution Service. 

Police discretion is how Bristol’s Drug Offence Diversion scheme (running since 2016) exists – people caught in possession for their own use are not arrested, but sent on an education programme. 

All the council, working with local drug and health services, needs to do is convince the police to write a formal ‘memorandum of understanding’ saying to any operator of an OPC what would and wouldn’t be allowed, from a policing perspective. Police Scotland’s new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPS) for the Glasgow facility would be a good start, which for example says that outside the OPC, drugs policing will be the same as it is now.

At Transform, we provided Police Scotland with the SOPS for a facility in Sydney, Australia, and organised online meetings with police overseas. We’ve also taken police and police and crime commissioners to see OPCs firsthand – and have an open invitation from German police to take Bristol police to Frankfurt.

The need for overdose prevention centres is increasing. England and Wales have record drug death rates, and places, including Bristol, have seen spikes in deaths from heroin adulterated with super-strong synthetic opioids. These deaths would not have occurred had the victims been using an OPC where the overdose can be reversed. 

These spikes may be connected to the Taliban banning opium planting in Afghanistan – the source of 95% of UK heroin – last year, leading to price rises. If that ban continues, more and more of the heroin supply could be replaced with synthetic opioids. Our North American colleagues are telling us to get OPCs open now, or risk the devastation one synthetic opioid – fentanyl – has brought there.

It’s time for Bristol City Council (and a mayor looking for a lasting legacy?) to start serious conversations with our police about opening an OPC. Or they will share responsibility for putting vulnerable Bristolians at risk, while leaving communities to pick up the pieces – along with used needles that could be in an OPC sharps bin instead.

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