The main potential barriers to the successful operation of drug-checking services are concerns over confidentiality and criminalisation, according to a study by the University of Stirling.
The policing response and trust in frontline staff would be crucial considerations, said participants in the research, which was funded by the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce. Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow are all working towards applications to the Home Office for licences to run their own pilot drug checking services, with levels of demand high in all three locations, according to researchers. The UK’s first regular, Home Office-licenced drug checking service launched earlier this year in Bristol.
The Scottish study was carried out between 2021 and 2023 in partnership with Public Health Scotland, Edinburgh Napier University, NHS Tayside and harm reduction charity Crew. Participants – who included charity and NHS staff, police, and people with experience of drug use and their families – were interviewed about a range of potential models for drug checking services. These included delivery within NHS drug treatment services, pharmacy settings, or fixed sites run by third-sector organisations, such as the Bristol facility, which is located at the headquarters of Bristol Drugs Project (BDP). Participants ‘generally preferred’ the last model, the document states.
The facilities would need to have ‘knowledgeable, non-judgemental staff’ as well as fast turnarounds, participants stressed. ‘Active community dialogue and engagement’ and positive harm reduction messages would also be important, while people with lived and living experience should be involved in both planning and delivering the services.
Although the most recent Scottish drug death total was down by 21 per cent on the previous year, Scotland’s death rate remains the highest in Europe and many in the drugs field are concerned about the potential impact of highly potent synthetic opioids like nitazenes on overdose rates. Data from the most recent Rapid Action Drug Alerts and Response (RADAR) early warning system found that nitazenes were detected in at least 25 fatalities in Scotland last year, meaning there was ‘little doubt’ that they were now circulating in the country’s drug supply.
‘Research into the community dynamics surrounding fixed site drug checking services is limited, so this study is important in understanding the desired outcomes, challenges and potential barriers, and ways to move forward,’ said study lead Professor Tessa Parkes of the University of Stirling. ‘The fear of being charged by police when accessing drug checking services (DCS) was high among the people we spoke to who had experience of using drugs. And although the police officers we interviewed were generally supportive of DCS, our findings suggest that strong messaging and assurances are needed about DCS and policing at national as well as local levels.’
‘Our results show that drug checking services in Scotland need to be adaptable to local needs,’ added Dr Hannah Carver, of the University of Stirling. ‘There clearly isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. People will also want a quick turnaround of results and trusted and knowledgeable staff. It is essential to include key stakeholders in the planning of the services, including those with experience of drug use.’
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s drug death total fell by almost 30 per cent in 2022 compared to the previous year’s figure of 213, according to the latest data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). However, the total is still 40 per cent higher than a decade ago, the agency points out, adding that delays in registrations and processes can also lead to fluctuations in the statistics. More than 80 per cent of the deaths were classed as drug misuse deaths.
Scottish drug checking project summary at https://www.crew.scot/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Scottish-drug-checking-project-summary-1.pdf
Drug-related and drug misuse deaths in Northern Ireland, 2012 to 2022 at https://www.nisra.gov.uk/news/drug-related-and-drug-misuse-deaths-northern-ireland-2012-2022