“Urgent” action needed on drugs policy, according to new Scottish Affairs Committee report

The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee published its report into drugs policy in Scotland yesterday, finding a need for the UK Government to take “urgent and radical steps to halt Scotland’s drug crisis”. With around 90% of new infections of hepatitis C being a result of the sharing of contaminated drug-taking equipment, drugs policy has a big impact on the UK’s ability to eliminate hepatitis C and on the support patients are able to receive.

The recommendations we made in our written evidence to the inquiry have been taken on board, including a call for piloting drug consumption rooms (DCRs). DCRs are legally sanctioned facilities where people can use illicit drugs obtained themselves under the medical supervision of trained staff. Extensive evidence demonstrates the benefits of DCRs, both to drug users and the community, one of which would be an opportunity to reduce blood-borne virus transmission. As well as providing clean drug-taking equipment which would prevent infected blood being passed between people, DCRs are well placed to raise awareness of hepatitis C and to provide testing and harm reduction information.

Also in line with our recommendations, the cross-party group called for the UK Government’s approach to drugs policy to change from being focused on criminal justice to being health-based. Only last week the Health and Social Care Select Committee called for the same shift in their report on UK drugs policy, urging this policy area to be under the Department of Health and Social Care rather than the Home Office. This would lessen stigma, encourage a joined-up approach, and reduce health inequalities for an already marginalised population.

The Scottish Affairs Committee called for a number of other bold initiatives to tackle what it called the “relentless increase in drug deaths in Scotland”, including the following:

  • the UK Government declaring a public health emergency;
  • a review into the impact welfare sanctions have on people who use drugs;
  • a public health-based approach which would necessitate the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 being “substantially reformed”;
  • the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use across the UK;
  • a review of the exclusion of substance dependence from equality legislation (Equality Act 2010), which the report argues prevents people from fully accessing recovery services.

Our CEO Rachel Halford said: “Effective drugs policy is crucial to the UK’s goal of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030. Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection for people who inject drugs, with about half of this population having been infected with the virus at some point.

“We are pleased the Scottish Affairs Committee has taken on board our suggestions and recommended the introduction of drug consumption rooms and a shift of drugs policy from a criminal justice-based approach to a health-based approach.

“The Scottish Government this summer announced an ambitious target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2024. In order to achieve this, it urgently needs to increase the number of people being tested and treated. While it will be restricted in what it can do in some policy areas under the control of the UK Government, a big impact can still be made in other areas, such as ensuring a coordinated approach through the implementation of its national elimination strategy and ensuring substance misuse services are adequately supported.”