Inside a model safe injecting room
A large camping tent sits in the corner of an exhibition room at Glasgow’s SEC Centre, inside are some chairs and a table with mugs of tea. Next to that are two wooden tables with mirrors attached. A blue plastic tub containing needles, sterile strips, and an elastic band sits on the table.
This is a mock-up safe injecting room, set up for the Scottish Government’s drugs conference, with strict orders to be dismantled by 5pm that day. Today, the UK Government’s drug conference is being held at the same venue, but the exhibition has been banned.
“We were invited by the Scottish Government come here, we also asked the Home Office, the UK Government, they said no, so we've been banned from theirs tomorrow,” Transform Drug Policy Foundation officer Ben Campbell, the charity who set up the injecting room, tells Holyrood.
“We have to be out of here by 5pm tonight as well, so we couldn't even rent another room within the SEC without the Home Office's permission. It's a very controlled site, it's very closed doors, they just want to control it.
“But we're here today, so we're hoping this was sort of a set the mood for tomorrow.”
Campbell walks Holyrood around the small room, beginning with the “welcome desk”, which just for today is covered in sterilised needles.
“It’s quite low-tech,” Campbell explains, “we're trying to demonstrate the fact that they're very easy to set up and inexpensive.
“A client, who wants to come in and inject drugs, they'll come here, they'll be greeted by a member of staff who will then take down some information about them, so their name and what they're here to do. They don't have to give their real name, but they should give the same name each time.
“They'll be guided through what the equipment is, so you have fresh, sterile needles, alcohol swabs, cooking spoons, clean sterile water as well.”
He points to the black plastic needle bin, and bright-yellow syringes of naloxone, the overdose reversal drug.
“Everything is on hand for someone to inject safer, and if something goes wrong, there are people on hand to help them to reverse the overdose, but to also discuss with them their drug use and other issues that may be going on in their life.
“It's a way to actually access people who are generally not actually engaging with service providers, it's a good way to actually get them in. When they've been checked in, they are taken to these booths here.”
The wooden booths, which he explains would normally be a “clinical, stainless steel”, have mirrors attached.
“So, whoever's actually injecting can actually see what they're doing,” he explains. “Sometimes they have to inject into hard to reach areas, you don't want to hit an artery, for example.
“It's also for staff to actually observe what they're doing, just in case they are doing something wrong, then staff can step in and just guide them about how to do it better.
“Once the person has actually injected the drug, they'll be popped into the chill out area, which is where they can basically just be observed by staff, and if anything does go wrong, then they can administer naloxone.
“The whole point is that they're observed and that a member of staff can actually engage with them and have a conversation with them.
It's just an opportunity to basically deal with their drug use and also any other issues going on in their lives.
This is only the second time the foundation has set up a safe injecting room. The first was in Bristol a few months ago, and the foundation will soon set one up in the West Midlands. “It’s sort of on a tour now,” Campbell jokes.
The foundation is campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs, and the consumption room is a short-term fix, “because of the crisis that we're currently in, we need this now,” he says.
The model they have set up in Glasgow is loosely based on a combination of the safe injecting rooms in Australia and Canada.
“This is a way to engage with people, to help them, because the alternative is a lot worse,” Campbell says. “We've heard accounts of people using puddle water or surface water from cars to inject with, whereas here they get clean water. On a very basic level, it's clean, it's safer, it's just far, far better.”
He explains that in Canada, safe drug consumption rooms are often situated on the ground floor below other organisations that can offer support.
“So, they come in on the ground floor and then upstairs, they might have a housing association. You sort of go into the building and you've got levels and you can deal with different organisations who might help you in different areas of your life,” Campbell says.
Holyrood asks about resistance from residents who live areas that the rooms have been set up in other countries.
“There's sometimes nimbyism, some people were reluctant to have them in their area, but if you already have that influx of people injecting drugs in your area, you need these kinds of facilities.
“When they're actually set up and built, you don't notice them, because it's just a regular building.”
Despite the foundation’s rejection from the UK Government conference, Campbell remains optimistic about the future for safe drug consumption facilities.
“There's increasing pressure on the UK Government to let these go ahead,” he says.
“Every single report which critiques the drug policy landscape in the UK, it's very damning of it. It says the current approach is not working, criminalising people pushes them further away from service providers, treatment and even funding for treatments being cut.
“These kinds of services are proven to work, they're used elsewhere in the world, we have a lot of studies that have been done with them, particularly in Canada, so other countries have tried it, they’ve trialled it and they're rolling them out, so we need to do the same.
“But it requires the UK Government really to let them go ahead. We're hoping that these conferences today and tomorrow will actually push that along.