A New York state senator who faced down lawsuits to help introduce supervised drug consumption rooms in the US is urging Scottish politicians to do whatever it takes to save lives.
As a representative of the central and south Bronx area for 11 years, Gustavo Rivera has seen first-hand the devastation drug deaths can cause.
In the second part of our series on overdose prevention centres in the States, the chairman of the New York Senate health committee explains how he helped push forward controversial policies which could be taken on at Holyrood.
In a key message for MSPs, he said decision makers should look at the impact of decriminalisation and drug consumption spaces – including examples from other countries such as Portugal.
“I would hope that policymakers in your country, with the local understanding that people like myself would never have, would take to heart that ultimately policies like this are about saving lives,” Mr Rivera told us.
“If we want people to recover and be healthy, they cannot do it if they’re dead. So anything we can do to keep people alive, we should do.
“And the research demonstrates, without a shadow of a doubt, that these centres save lives.”
What is the Scottish Government doing?
In the first part of our series, we asked what Scottish politicians can learn from their counterparts in New York where city mayor Bill de Blasio found a way to work around federal laws to introduce supervised injection sites.
The city that never sleeps has been locked in a drug deaths crisis that mirrors Scotland’s and Mr Rivera believes these new facilities could have an “immense” impact.
As of yesterday, we have already reversed 9 overdoses at our prevention centers. https://t.co/tcalIxgx3K
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) December 3, 2021
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government is “actively exploring” how to open safe consumption spaces in Scotland.
A total of 1,339 deaths attributed to drugs were recorded across the country last year.
But the UK Government – which controls drug laws – has long been opposed to any changes that would allow them to operate.
‘There will be many lawsuits’
In New York, Mr Rivera and his colleagues faced a similar struggle.
“We know that there’s going to be a lawsuit, there will be many lawsuits,” he said.
“But we feel very strongly that we have the authority to do this.
“There are various legal memos and briefings that have been written, and analysis that has been done, to establish that states and localities have the authority to do this.
“We have been asking for many years, myself as one of the main leaders in this, to either to do it legislatively or to do it through executive action at the state level.”
The Scottish Parliament is widely expected to pursue its own trial of drug consumption sites and Dundee is earmarked as a possible location.
However, it is not yet clear how the Scottish Government would be able to provide assurances operators will not be open to prosecution.
Activist Peter Krykant was arrested in October last year for running a supervised “fix room” from a modified van in Glasgow but the charges were later dropped.
When I was homeless & begging for change in the late 1990s I injected drugs in dirty alleyways.
23 years later nothing has changed, people are still injecting in dirty alleyways.
— Peter Krykant (@PeteKrykant_OPC) December 4, 2021
Campaigners have urged the Scottish Government to push on regardless and challenge the UK Government to fight the action in court after the full impact on overdoses has been directly established.
Mr Rivera is currently pushing two Bills through the New York Senate.
One of them creates a time-limited pilot programme for overdose prevention centres and the other authorises them for areas that want to establish sites.
He believes authorisation at a state-wide level will be “essential”.
I just want it to get done.”
The current set-up relies on the US justice department and local police to continue turning a blind eye.
It is not clear what would happen if another president or administration takes a dimmer view of the centres.
For now, Mr Rivera says: “We are still seeking state-wide authorisation.
“I’m talking to the governor. They’re open to the idea but they’re still not completely convinced.
“I don’t care whether my bill passes or not, as in if it’s done administratively, I don’t give a s***. I just want it to get done.”