ONE of Scotland ’s most highly regarded experts on drug policy has claimed that Scotland should have set up drug consumption rooms a decade ago, without asking for permission from the Home Office.

Dr Roy Robertson, a professor of addiction medicine at Edinburgh University, said the Scottish Government’s advisory group on Drug Related Harm – of which he was chair – told ministers back in 2009 that safe injecting facilities were needed as part of a national strategy to prevent a future crisis. Last year 1187 people died of drug overdoses in Scotland.

He still practices as a GP in Muirhouse, the area of Edinburgh where Trainspotting was set, and where he led a pioneering response to the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, providing clean needles and syringes before it was legal to do so. Eventually he and others were able to persuade authorities of the evidence base for changing the law to save lives.

Now he claims the same approach should have been taken with safer drug consumption facilities. A proposal was put forward by Glasgow’s Health and Social Care Partnership with the backing of the Scottish Government more than two years ago but was ruled out by the Lord Advocate in November 2017. The Home Office has repeatedly refused to allow it.

Last week the Scottish Affairs Committee – which published its report following an inquiry on problem drug use – argued the evidence for a Glasgow facility was “the most compelling in Europe”. It urged the UK Government to devolve powers to Scotland so a facility could be set up.

But Robertson told the Sunday National that it was his view that Scotland should have gone ahead and set-up a trial drug consumption room rather than present the proposal to Westminster. He said: “Until recently I was chairing the Scottish Government harms group and we recommended drug consumption rooms 10 years ago. They [ministers] listened but there wasn’t a crisis at the time so nothing happened.

“My view was we should set it up, find a consultant who was willing, start in a controlled environment and just do it because it would be good public health medicine. We should do that just like we did with needles and syringes before they were allowed.

“If anyone came along and said: ‘Hang on a minute, this is illegal’, we would say: ‘Well, do you have a better idea? Do you want to take on these patients? Please come and help.’ We would precipitate a crisis and the Lord Advocate would come along and say: ‘Well, we can’t lock you up’ and it would unfold from there.”

The approach has been adopted by medical professionals and campaigners in Canada, where activists set up safe injecting sites with medical facilities attached in tents and empty shop front in the nineties until authorities finally agreed to pilot the approach in 2003. In September the Sunday National reported on calls from Canadian campaigners for Scots to engage in civil disobedience to make facilities available here.

However, Robertson claimed the decision was taken out of his hands by others who “set up a committee to look at changing the law” and lost momentum when permission was sought. “The reason I thought that wouldn’t work is of course that the Home Office has been ghastly – and totally hostile to drug users over the last 10 years,” he added.

“We are in a very similar situation to we were in 1985 when we had a Neoliberal government who were pretty unpleasant about public health. But here we have another crisis. We have HIV in Glasgow, cocaine all over the place, A&E attendance soaring, vicious cut backs. But it’s a worse situation because we don’t have any leadership.” He claimed the lack of treatment offered to those on methadone was deeply concerning.

“The Scottish Government wants to be seen to totally in control but aren’t. In drugs legislation it is constrained by powers that aren’t devolved. So we’re really stuck. I think the Scottish Government has not been terribly brave and hasn’t challenged the Home Office as it should do. We have a major problem.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have repeatedly invited the UK Government to work with us and to take urgent steps to address the drug deaths crisis. We are committed to taking action to reduce the harms and deaths caused by drugs, including calls in Glasgow for a medically supervised overdose prevention facility.

“Medical staff should not have to break the law, these facilities can save lives and we continue to urge the UK Government to take action as quickly as possible – either by taking the necessary steps to allow them to be created or to devolve the powers to Scotland so that we can.”