What measures are needed to reduce our drug deaths? Looking at the issue from both a national and student perspective, The Glasgow Guardian speaks to both activist Peter Krykant and student Arthur Sebag.
Glasgow’s Safe Drug Consumption Van has received its “first official funding” and is now in a better position to “improve service delivery”, as seen in joyful tweets from the van’s founder Peter Krykant. The van received funding from “The European Network of and for People who Use Drugs”, an organisation that “[represents] the interests of people who use drugs in Europe and it’s neighborhood”.
The Glasgow Guardian initially spoke to Krykant in November last year, following calls from Glasgow’s medical school warning students not to get involved. After the Scottish government pledged to increase funding to tackle drug deaths, The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Krykant again, to discuss the issue in more depth. We also spoke to student activist, drug van volunteer, and the director of Drugs and Me, Arthur Sebag.
In 2019, Scotland was named the drug death capital of the world. Statistics found that in 2019, there was a 27% increase in drug deaths than in the previous year. Following the recent Scottish government announcement that funding of over £250M would be dedicated to tackling drug deaths, The Glasgow Guardian interviewed Peter Krykant, former addict turned activist.
Krykant set up the safe drug consumption van and his work in the mobile Overdose Prevention Centre helped him catch the attention of Scottish parliament. He recently met with both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Constance, the minister for drugs policy, to consider what further measures are needed to help reverse the current drug-death trend in Scotland. Krykant discussed with The Glasgow Guardian his views on the government’s new approach.
GG: I’m aware you recently met with both Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Constance to discuss new measures to tackle drug deaths in Scotland. How did that go?
PK: After meeting with both the First Minister and the drugs policy minister in early January, Angela Constance arranged a further meeting to discuss what I thought about the measures. We’ve got an ongoing dialogue now about how best to implement things that are going to have an impact on her bringing these drug deaths down quickly, and I really appreciate that. The outcome I’m hoping for is one where Nicola Sturgeon meets with the Lord Advocate; if there’s going to be change, it needs to come directly from him. And that’s the thing: nothing’s changed today. The reality is that, on average, there are more than three people dying a day now, so I’m emphasising that we need to get these things in place quickly. The old Tory mantra of “the war on drugs” with the mindset that we just need to “get everyone off drugs”… that’s not going to happen. Drugs are here to stay and the way forward is to help people manage their drug use better through a safer supply.
GG: You must feel optimistic that the government is clearly open to taking advice now, especially from those with firsthand experience.
PK:Yes, definitely. It’s a murky field with drugs and alcohol. You’ve got all these small third-sector organisations, grassroots organisations, NHS prescribers… and they’re all vying for a little bit more funding. I told the ministers that if they’re really going to tackle this, it needs major investment and funding to allow the frontline services to actually support the people that are coming into treatment. Thankfully the money is there now, and it’s a massive investment: £50M extra funding, each financial year, until 2026.
GG: What are the main frontline services currently operating in Glasgow?
GG: What other issues, alongside funding, do you think the government needs to focus on to create change?
PK: For me, the number one key issue is the wider role-out of heroin-assisted treatment. Countries like Switzerland, who use this routinely now, have had massive reductions in heroin-related drug deaths as a result. All the research and evidence shows that initiatives like heroin-assisted treatment have shown huge benefit in many countries.
GG: Can you describe the heroin-assisted treatment in more detail, for those of us that aren’t as aware of what it involves?
PK: It’s essentially the administration of pharmaceutical-grade heroin: diamorphine. Normally, by the time heroin gets to street dealers and users, it’s no longer pure and no one knows what’s in it. So essentially, with heroin-assisted treatment, you’re giving people a clean, safe supply. The data from the small studies that have come out of Middlesbrough and Glasgow shows that where other treatment methods haven’t worked, people do stay connected with heroin-assisted treatment. Other issues are also taken care of: if you’re taking heroin from the street then you can get infections and infected wounds, Hepatitis C, HIV… This doesn’t happen with pharmaceutical-grade heroin as it’s taken in a clean, sterile environment.
GG: Do you feel that the measures that have come in are sufficient to make the change that is required over the next few years?
PK: I think the funding is sufficient. I think that a lot of that needs to be directed to residential rehabilitation.
GG: What do you think could be done to make rehab more effective?
PK: I look back on some of the most dangerous times for me, and actually coming out of rehab was one of them: I was detoxed, I had no tolerance, and I’ve not had the support built up around me for coming out and so I’ve used again. I’ve been lucky to not die in those situations.
Again, I really think the First Minister took that advice on board. When she spoke, she said that money is not going to be spent only in residential rehabilitation but on aftercare in the community, and we’re also going to look to put people into residential rehab centres closer to where they live – that’s crucial. Sending people to a big house in a field in the middle of nowhere for three months and detoxing them to send them back to Possilpark or Easterhouse, back to the flat with the dealer next door… For me, those days are gone. People need to be in rehab centres close to where they live so they can start engaging with the community whilst they’re actually in rehab.
GG: We’ve spoken before about the Drug Consumption Van: is that still operating?
I’ve actually just bought a decommissioned ambulance as a replacement for the last van and that should hopefully be fully operational by the start of February. It needs some renovation done on the inside, and I still need to figure out what all the buttons do!
For me, it’s symbolic as well. It’s an ambulance, it’s been used to save lives, and now it’s being used in our health initiative, through which we also hope to save lives.
As well as working with Drugs and Me, an online drug awareness and safety resource, student Arthur Sebag also played an instrumental role in helping Krykant spread awareness of the Safe Drug Consumption Van. We discussed the issue of drugs in a less extreme context, and how drug education can be improved for students on campus.
GG: We recently spoke to Peter Krykant about the additional Scottish government funding to help tackle drug deaths. I was wondering what you thought of the potential measures that Nicola Sturgeon had mentioned in her announcement?
AS: We definitely need more in terms of rehabilitation, and we currently have a unique opportunity to rethink what rehab is. We’ve seen that a lot of people want to use less drugs or stop using certain drugs, and what’s important to consider is: how can we help people earlier on in their journey? And that’s why Drugs and Me exists.
GG: Can you tell me a bit more about the role of Drugs and Me, especially during Covid-19?
AS:Drugs and Me is not so much targeted at those high-risk people that are discussed in the report; we cater to the 90% of people who use drugs who do it more or less functionally, but who still face a number of risks, including progressing to more problematic use. It’s important to also state that we do not encourage people to use drugs; however, we are aware that people do and will continue to, and so we want to help with education and harm reduction.
Our real objective is to help people become more literate with drugs. It’s not just about knowing what the dose is for a certain drug, it’s about knowing that there is a dose, and that there is a thing that is “too much”, and knowing that if you take a depressant and a stimulant then that is pulling your heart and your general autonomic system in two different directions. We want to really teach people that, and go a bit further than just being a resource.
A big thing that came out in one of our surveys was that nearly 50% of participants were using drugs to self-medicate during the pandemic, and this type and level of drug use is something that has not really been talked about. Essentially, it should become more normal for these discussions to take place so that the issue becomes less stigmatised, like with sex education, in order to help catch stuff earlier on.
GG: How is Drugs and Me looking to contribute towards drug education in the setting of universities?
AS: We have a spin-off consultancy that we’ve started, and we do a lot of work with University unions. We are looking to add a workshop on drugs and harm reduction to the ones currently offered by the SRC. There is also a current discussion about bringing drug testing kits to the University, which is something that will hopefully go ahead.