Are controversial ‘fix rooms’ a solution or a problem?

By Steven McGinty

In August, Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership (ADP) announced that it had found a potential site for its pilot drug consumption facility.

This new service provides drug users with a place to inject drugs under clinical supervision and discard their needles. Other services may also be offered, including the prescription of pharmaceutical grade heroin (administered under strict controls) and the development of a peer support network.

The site in Glasgow’s city centre would be the first in the UK and it’s hoped that it would be up-and-running by 2018. However, these proposals have been met with a mixed response.

Drug consumption rooms

First established in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986, drug consumption rooms were a response to concerns over the spread of HIV/AIDS, increases in drug related deaths, and the rise of public drug deaths in European cities. They were also part of a wider shift in drugs policy, where traditional abstinence-based approaches were being replaced by harm reduction programmes, which focused on reducing the negative impacts of drug abuse.

Since then, over 90 drug consumption facilities have been opened in countries such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada.

The case for Glasgow

Approximately 500 drug users inject in public places in the city centre. This small group of people accounts for the majority of discarded needles – a major public health risk for the city – and for many instances of public order problems. As a result, Glasgow City Council, Police Scotland and other agencies are spending significant resources managing drug misuse in the city centre.

Although this small group of public injectors provides challenges, they are also vulnerable and often experience other issues such as homelessness, mental health issues, and recent imprisonment. In particular, they are far more likely to suffer health problems. This includes an increased risk of blood-borne viruses, injecting-related serious infections, and overdoses and drug-related deaths. In recent years, the statistics have shown a decline in the health of Glasgow’s drug users. In 2015, the number of HIV infection cases rose from a consistent 10 to 47 per year. Drug-related deaths also rose from 157 to 170 in 2016.

As Susanne Millar, chief officer of Planning, Strategy and Commissioning for the Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership, and chair of the ADP, explains:

People injecting drugs in public spaces are experiencing high levels of harm and are impacting on the wider community. We need to make our communities safer for all people living in and visiting the city, including those who publicly inject.”

What the experts say

Many have welcomed the announcement.

Dr Emilia Crighton, director of Public Health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and vice chair of the ADP, argues that Glasgow is decades behind other countries in how it responds to drug addiction. She highlights that the city has been at the centre of high profile cases of anthrax, botulism and HIV infection, and that conventional treatment has not been successful at reducing health risks. She explains:

Our ultimate goal is for drug users to recover from their addiction and remain drug free. However, until someone is ready to seek and receive help to stop using drugs it is important to keep them as safe as possible while they do continue to use drugs.”

David Liddell, Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish Drugs Forum, is also in favour of the new facility, explaining that they have been successful in other countries.

They may seem controversial but when you see that these have been running in many countries in Europe for up to 30 years, you get a different perspective. Holland now has 31 drug consumption rooms and Germany has 24, for example. From these years of practice, clear evidence has emerged as to the effectiveness of these facilities.”

But there has also been some notable criticism. For example, Professor Neil McKeganey, an expert in drugs policy with the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow, argued that the scheme is highly flawed. He believes that David Liddell is wrong, and contends that the proposed facilities are controversial. Professor McKeganey highlights previous research with drug addicts in Scotland which found that only 5% wanted to inject more safely, with the overwhelming majority wanting to receive treatment and become drug free. Professor McKeganey also suggests that ‘supposedly’ safer places to inject will not reduce the rising cases of HIV infection and other drug-related harms.

He warns that although these services have a role to play, “there is a real danger here we are moving steadily away from services to get addicts off drugs.

Final thoughts

There is a growing body of research into the effectiveness of drug consumption rooms. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has found that drug consumption facilities can deliver a number of benefits, including:

  • increasing access to health and social services;
  • supporting safe and hygienic drug use; and
  • reducing public drug use and associated nuisance.

However, the evidence on whether drug consumption rooms reduce cases of HIV or the hepatitis C virus remain unclear. And research has also shown that some countries can find it difficult to establish a legal basis for facilities – as the recent suspension of a facility in Greece demonstrates.

For Glasgow, it probably is about time that a drug consumption room was piloted. However, it will be important that its impacts are fully evaluated and that resources for drug treatment services are maintained in the coming years.


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