Glasgow: No easy fix for the victims of Scotland's drug epidemic

Monday 2nd December 2019 09:30 GMT

But for the thousands who seek out the darker quarters of Glasgow, this is merely another night in which the primary aim is to chase their next hit of the killer drug, heroin.

I have spent four days in this city talking to people about why there are so many people dying as result of drugs.

It is not an issue confined to Glasgow nor is it confined to Scotland, or the UK for that matter.

Drugs are everywhere and they kill every day. I've seen it first-hand all over the world from the border towns of Mexico to the rat-infested basement slums of Ukraine.

Drugs know no borders.

But Glasgow, a place brimming with culture, architecture and sport, is fast becoming the drugs death capital of Europe.

Recent data from National Records for Scotland show that in 2018, 1,187 drug-related deaths were recorded in the country.

A third of those deaths were in Glasgow city centre.

Experts have long pointed to a higher level of deprivation in the city made worse by the closure of heavy industry stripping whole communities of purpose and pride.

But a whole a generation has passed since the thousands of Glaswegians were decanted from filthy slums into new schemes and high-rise flat developments.

And it didn't take long for those brand new high rises to go from utopian solution to social problem.

And so today, despite large swathes of the city undergoing development and gentrification, four of the five most deprived areas in Scotland are in Glasgow, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

And this is fuelling a drug epidemic that is killing three people each and every day in Scotland.

In Glasgow's city centre a small blue, single-decker bus has parked up by the roadside near to the bars and shops. Within seconds of its arrival people emerge as if from nowhere and climb on board.

This bus is for broken souls who have come for a different kind of hit that won't kill them.

A gas fire is burning away and hot tea and cakes are served and gratefully received. Some are loud and boisterous, others sit quietly eating what looks like the only meal they've had that day.

A young man gets on the bus and sits down next to me. We shake hands and I introduce myself. And I ask him how he got into this situation. He begins a heart-wrenching story that I am not prepared for.

"My mother was a heavy drinker, two bottles of vodka a day. I cannot remember a time when she wasn't drunk.

"My step father was a b******. He used to come into my bedroom every morning and batter me stupid, then walk out and lock the door. He had a padlock on my door and I couldn't get out.

"I was petrified of him. I started wetting the bed so he took my bed away and I had to sleep on the floor. I used to wet the floor and so he took the carpet away. I used to sleep on the bare floorboards and he made me scrub them with bleach until my hands burned.

"He boarded up the windows so I couldn't see out of my bedroom. I was like a caged animal. I remember it like it was yesterday."

Graham was eventually taken into care and that is where he was introduced to heroin at the age of 13.

"I took heroin and that was it, I was hooked. I'm 34 now and I'm still on it. I'm ashamed to say that it's ruined my life and it's still ruining my life."

Current government policy is to prescribe users methadone, a synthetic opioid, in the hope they will gradually be able to reduce their intake of illegal drugs without experiencing traumatic withdrawal symptoms.

Graham has been receiving a methadone prescription for the past four months but he admits to taking street heroin as "a top up", in which he risks contracting known drug-related illnesses such as HIV or hepatitis C.

The bus continues to another part of town and pulls up outside a 120-room hostel for the homeless. This place is notorious, I'm told. As I stand outside, the door opens and out comes a skinny young man with a beard.

Andrew, 26, has lived in this hostel for the past four years. His housing benefit covers the rent. I ask him what it's like inside.

"If you can imagine hell, it's worse than that," he said.

"I have a room the size of a wardrobe. There are cockroaches all over the place. Mice scampering around all over the bed. The walls are wet. People knock on your door day and night wanting to rob you, or slash you, or stab you.

"The other day there was a man naked on the stairs injecting heroin into his groin and no one batted an eyelid. That's what this place is like."

There are differing opinions when it comes to drug policy and whether it is working.

Policy is currently a central government issue, but the Scottish government believes it should be in control of how to deal with its own epidemic.

A new scheme in which homeless addicts are provided with pharmaceutical grade heroin to inject themselves with, has just been launched.

It is seen as a pioneering scheme intended to combat the soaring drug deaths and HIV infection rates across the city.

Medical staff say it does not go far enough and have called for a so-called safe consumption room to be introduced.

This is where addicts can bring their own drugs to inject and it is claimed could help hundreds more vulnerable addicts. But this has been blocked by the Home Office.

Its official name is Heroin Assisted Treatment but the addicts on the street call it a "shooting gallery".

Individuals referred to this scaled-back service will be given a prescription of diamorphine tailored to their requirements, which they must inject on the premises and under strict supervision.

Patients will take their pre-filled syringe from the dispensary counter to a small booth, furnished with a stainless steel counter, a padded chair and a disposal box.

The booth is screened for privacy but has a mirrored back wall to allow nurses to view their progress.

They will spend around 20 minutes in the booth, and then a further 20 minutes in a nearby seating area where they will be monitored in case of overdose.

Dr Saket Priyadarshi, associate medical director and senior medical officer at Glasgow Alcohol and Drug Recovery Services, said drug policy should be devolved to Scotland.

He said: "We think there's a very strong evidence base that supports the likelihood that this could save lives."

But others disagree with this approach and would prefer addicts to be encouraged to quit drugs altogether rather than be kept on methadone.

The Haven is a faith-based rehabilitation centre for drug addicts on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Here residents are encouraged to embrace God and read the Bible as a way of overcoming their addiction.

It offers a 12-month residential programme with a further six months community resettlement programme and boasts that 65% of those who graduate show no sign of relapse after five years.

Leon Rogers, a recovering heroin addict, has been in the centre for eight months.

"I don't think these rooms where you can inject are the right way forward," he said.

"I would have used it as a maintenance for my habit and would have gone away and scored more heroin to see me through the day. You can't cure an addict by giving him more drugs."

Gary Lister, field director at the Have, said he did not think current drug policy was working.

"If someone is being prescribed methadone, let's have a strategy to not park them on it, but to get them off it. Let's give them an alternative that over a period of time there is a chance for them to be drug free."

Now On Air
More Music on Coast FM
More music on Coast FM