Could drug checking help prevent harms in Scotland?

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A team of experts working in partnership with the University of Stirling is exploring how drug checking services could be developed for Scotland in order to reduce harms.

The group, led by Professor Tessa Parkes, has received funding from the Drugs Deaths Taskforce – a body established by the Scottish Government in 2019 to prevent drug deaths in Scotland.

Drug checking services, which are already offered in Australia, Canada and some other European countries, allow people to confidentially hand in a sample of drugs to be tested by professionals. They are then provided with information on the substances detected, their potency and purity. The person involved then has the opportunity to either dispose of the drugs or use them in a more informed manner, reducing risks of harm including overdose. Harm reduction counselling also provides an opportunity for people using drugs to be linked with a wide range of support and services.

The research is exploring how drug checking could be delivered in Scotland, initially in the three cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Dundee. 

Interviews with those with experience of drug use, family members of those who use drugs, and professionals, including NHS staff, police, and third sector organisations, will build a picture of the important elements required.

The team is working closely with Alcohol and Drug Partnerships to design models of care that fit the needs of each city. UK Home Office licenses are needed to run these services in Scotland so applications for these licenses will be submitted as part of the project.

Professor Parkes said: “Sadly Scotland has some of the highest drug related death figures globally, with rates sharply increasing in recent years. Drug checking could be an important response by reducing the risk of harms, including drug-related deaths, for people who use drugs and associated harms caused to families, communities and wider society.

“Drug checking can also contribute to public health surveillance of drug markets in local areas and at a national level which can feed into Scotland’s wider public health surveillance work on drugs and drugs harms”.

Drug checking services are growing in number globally and are increasingly recognised as an important component of wider drug harm reduction strategies. Drug checking services in Europe have traditionally been aimed at more ‘recreational’ use associated with the nightlife and party scenes. Recent developments in Canada have used drug checking as a means of reducing deaths and other harms in the context of an ongoing opioid overdose epidemic.

Vicki Craik, Emerging Trends and Training Coordinator at Crew, a Scottish harm reduction and outreach charity, and a co-investigator on the project said: “Crew is excited to be involved with the Scottish drug checking project. This is the perfect opportunity to share our expertise of new psychoactive substances and ensure the voices of people who take drugs are heard.

“A drug checking service in Scotland will allow us to gain invaluable real-time surveillance information on drug markets. This will help us to make sure our information is even more current, accurate and reliable.

“This project means that Scotland can respond better to drug trends and prevent drug-related harms more effectively. It will also help provide evidence to ensure services and budgets are developed to meet changing needs”.

Minister for Drugs Policy, Angela Constance, said: “The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland is a tragedy and we are taking a range of actions, backed by an additional £50 million for the next five years, to reduce them.

“The deaths caused by street benzodiazepines, and the lack of understanding around what people are taking, is a growing concern and I am determined that we introduce drug checking facilities in Scotland. I have been in contact with the UK Minister for Policing to discuss what measures we can take to facilitate this.

“This drug checking project, funded by the Scottish Government through the Drug Deaths Taskforce is informed by international evidence but also by local need. It will have the potential to provide us with real-time information about drug trends and possible dangerous substances in circulation, but ultimately it will help to prevent a range of drug-related harms and deaths.”

The research project is expected to complete in January 2023.