Student work: Glasgow Needle Exchange Closes amid Controversy

News story on a controversy

by Sara Paciaroni, fourth year student in 2017-2018

Stigma and discrimination would be behind the closure of Glasgow Central Station needle exchange on 24 September, according to experts.

Network Rail’s decision to close Glasgow’s busiest needle exchange “demonstrates that people who use drugs continue to be stigmatised and discriminated against”, said Emma Hamilton, National Training and Development officer at Scottish Drug Forum (SDF). “This increases the barriers for people engaging in services generally due to distrust and lack of rapport,” added Hamilton.

According to Austin Smith, Policy and Practice Officer at SDF, the “irrational fear” towards drug users has contributed not only to the closure of the needle exchange, but also indirectly to the HIV outbreak that is affecting 103 drug injectors in Glasgow.

Nine of the 12 short-term residents currently at the Glasgow Drug Crisis Centre (GDCC) said they have used the service and told Laura Stewart, Service Manager at Turning Point Scotland, “They don’t see themselves as a risk to passengers.”

Andy Dewar, Communications Manager at Turning Point, pointed out that this group of people is very unlikely to work with the media, highlighting the difficulty organisations like his face when trying to bring these issues to the wider public, which strengthens the stigma around injecting drug users.

Network Rail have not changed their position and insist their primary concern is the safety of their staff and passengers. “We have had regular issues with used kits being found in toilets and baby changing facilities, users under the influence of drugs being found on the station premises and locked in our toilets. We’ve also had issues with overdoses, including a fatal one,” said Nick King, spokesperson for Network Rail.

The company, which owns the station building, took extra measures to limit this kind of episodes but did not see a reduction of incidents and decided to withdraw from facilitating the exchange service. Hamilton said “harm reduction services could work with Network Rail to mitigate this risk, perhaps by putting up sharps containers in the public toilets, which is already done in other areas of Scotland.”

“I think it is worth looking into other events that put the public in Central station at risk, and the frequency into which these occur compared to how often the public have found discarded equipment,” added Hamilton. SDF told the BBC the number of episodes would only amount to 10 minor incidents and a major one, while Mark Dell, spokesperson for the NHS, revealed a high number of injecting drug users already congregate around the station.

The NHS condemned Network Rail’s decision in a media statement: “The service has been run in an exemplary fashion and is ideally placed to provide the service out of hours. Network Rail’s position of enforced closure goes against local, national and international evidence on the individual and community public health benefits.”

The injecting equipment provision at Central Station was introduced in July 2016 in response to an outbreak of HIV in Glasgow.

“It hinders the current attempts to manage the HIV outbreak. One of the main ways of doing this is ensuring convenient easy access to new injecting equipment. The closure of this service has a huge impact on public health,” added Hamilton.

The needle exchange was located in the Boots pharmacy inside the station. It offered extended hours of injecting equipment provision in a central location and it was the busiest in Scotland providing 41,238 sets of clean injecting equipment to almost 2,000 individuals since its opening, according to SDF and the NHS.

See story slideshow here