Learning from Edinburgh’s Response to Legal Highs

Earlier this week, Parliament debated the Progress the Scottish Government is making in implementing the recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances (Or NPSs).  My contribution to the debate did not focus on the prohibition or liberalisation of substance, but instead called on the Scottish Government to ensure that it provides mechanisms which enables local councils, health boards and police to respond in a coordinated, local fashion, supported by responsive national agencies and legislation.

The intravenous use of one substance, ethylphenidate has been the focus of difficulties in Edinburgh.  Considered to be cheap, purer and of better quality than street drugs it is frequently used in combination with street drugs but its short-lived high caused needle use to grow month on month and users exhibited erratic and sometimes antisocial behaviour. Residents in the Southside, Tollcross and the city centre were distressed to come across people with a frequent need to reinject using their stairs and leaving behind drug-related items.

But since a ban came was introduced in March there has been a marked change in Edinburgh. Infection and injecting are down and support services in Edinburgh are pioneering ways to respond by reducing usage, managing cravings and preventing relapse.  We still need more mental health and emotional support alongside capacity building to ensure that services are co-ordinated with the NHS, police and the council.

It is key the national framework must not downplay the importance of local progress and or deprioritise work that is done by local agencies. Caledonia Youth and Crew 2000 had a good track record of passing on samples of legal highs to police forensic services but, that relationship and the local integration have been lost through Police Scotland centralisation.

Edinburgh’s experience with intravenous drug use in the 1980s was absolutely harrowing and affected a generation. The AIDS (Control) Act 1987, pioneered by Gavin Strang MP, enabled local authorities to track the infection, provide details of infection rates and provide information on the treatment provided. That helped us to control the disease. Since those dark days of the 1980s, Edinburgh has worked hard to support those who misuse substances and to prevent harm to individuals and the wider community.

In Wales, the WEDINOS project has shown that the NHS and justice systems can integrate well to cascade harm reduction guidance to local support services. That service is relied on by local teams but provided nationally.

The local co-ordination of treatment, rehabilitation and public education is key to minimising harm reduction. We need to ensure through national action that resource and discretion are responsive to local demands, and we need to foster co-ordination in communities across Scotland.  Read the full transcript of my speech in the Scottish Parliament Official Report.