The image of a man lying with a needle in his hand in broad daylight is a sign Scotland needs to “do more” to support drug users, the public health minister says.
Joe FitzPatrick believes the country is in the grip of a “public health emergency” – and its approach to drugs needs to change as soon as possible.
The image of the man lying semi-conscious in Bank Street is, he says, exactly why Scotland needs safe consumption rooms.
And having reviewed the Tele’s exhaustive coverage of Dundee’s drug deaths crisis, he laid out his vision for how they could work.
“This shows we need to do more to support people,” he said, looking at Wednesday’s front page.
“As I understand it, this individual is okay, which is good.
“But would it not be better if that individual was to have taken those drugs in a supervised location?
“There, we may be able to encourage them into other treatments and services.”
Safe consumption rooms, also known as overdose prevention centres, see people take drugs in a supervised environment with clean equipment.
They are credited with reducing overdose deaths and the transmission of viruses spread through dirty needles, like HIV.
Mr FitzPatrick believes such facilities could be run locally. Currently, addiction services in Dundee are managed by the city’s health and social care partnership – a joint venture between NHS Tayside and the council.
“Before we do anything, we would want to look at best practices from others across the world,” he said.
“But we would want a room where the substances would be taken, but in addition we would want to have a range of other services to support individuals.
“We could encourage them into treatment, and try to tackle some of the other issues, their wider circumstances, to help them towards recovery.
“It could be housing, mental health services, employment. Generally people with addiction problems will have a range of issues that they need to be supported with.”
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He added: “It won’t necessarily be right for every area.
“There has been a very strong case for places like Glasgow, where we have had an HIV outbreak as well as drug deaths.”
Scotland’s recent drug death tallies struck a chord in the corridors of power, with committees, commissions and taskforces discussing policy in Dundee, Holyrood and Westminster.
Last year 1,187 people died north of the border, at a rate of 219 deaths for every million people. Of those deaths, 66 were in Dundee – at a per-head rate more than twice the national average.
The figures have led to calls for more drastic action. Dundee City Council leader John Alexander said he wants to see “changes to the way…drug-related services work”.
Mr FitzPatrick hopes the Home Office is prepared to consider radical action under new Home Secretary Priti Patel amid hints of a softening of policy in Whitehall.
Earlier this week in the Commons, health secretary Matt Hancock told Glasgow MP Alison Thewliss the UK Government will do “absolutely everything we can and put aside all party politics” to tackle Scotland’s drug death problem.
And this year the Home Office sanctioned its first ever drug-testing clinic in Somerset, run by Addaction.
While he believes future analysis of the centre will be “interesting”, Dundee City West MSP Mr FitzPatrick is wary of striking a fine balance between keeping drug users safe and the Scottish Government appearing to condone the use of illicit substances.
“It concerns me that (drug testing) might be seen as saying that drugs are safe – but the evidence is that this will save lives,” he said.
“We don’t want to be seen as condoning or encouraging drug use – there is a thin line between that and taking a public health approach.”
The Tele has examined radical approaches from around the world such as decriminalisation to rogue safe consumption rooms.
Just what Scotland could or could not adopt Mr FitzPatrick would not say – but both his recently convened Drugs Death Taskforce and the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee will make their recommendations in the months ahead.
“I hope that the UK Government will be prepared to have a genuine conversation (about policy),” he said.
“There is potential for a change in what Scotland could be doing and should be doing. We’ll be hoping (the home secretary) accepts our invitation to the summit in Glasgow.
“I would hope the UK Government can look at the figures and realise it’s not only a substantial number of Scottish people that are dying but people across the UK. I have been absolutely clear that this is an emergency and we need to take a public health approach.
“But 66 people dead in Dundee – that is a figure that says it all.”