Why A Guy With Van Threatens U.K. Drug Policy
A former opioid addict and activist is tackling the troubling drug-death problem in Scotland by overseeing the nation's first drug-consumption room and facing detention.
Over the past two months, Peter Krykant parked his white van every Friday on Parnie Street in central Glasgow, across the corner from a games store and several art galleries, waiting for people to come and inject illicit substances.
There are two seats and two tables inside the van, each with a stainless steel tray, hypodermic needles and several biohazard trash cans. The van also has naloxone, drug used to treat heroin poisoning, and defibrillator. (Covid-19 safety precautions, too: hand sanitizer and mask box.)
Mr. Krykant normally opens the van by 10 a.m., and three people were still waiting to get inside that day. This was somewhat shocking, since the Scottish police charged him with obstruction the week before after he refused to open the car to officers, believing many people were taking drugs inside. He wasn't sure who would return after that scare.
Scotland is in the middle of the world's worst opioid problem, and one of the worst. The nation has tallied five consecutive years of record-setting, drug-related deaths, currently having a death rate per capita three times higher than everywhere else in Europe.
Overdoses are more popular in Scotland than even the United States. In 2018, Scotland had almost 20 drug-related deaths per 100,000 people compared to 18 deaths in the U.S. and only five in Ireland, Finland and Sweden.
Mr. Krykant claims that opioid-consumption rooms would help slow the incidence of overdose deaths in Scotland by encouraging drug users to administer naloxone under supervision.
Mr. Krykant talks quickly with other men waiting inside. He asks them what kind of medication they can inject, write down, and then open the sliding back door.
Besides Mr. Krykant, at least one other qualified volunteer is on duty; they take turns monitoring the police and inspecting the people inside.
A 25-year-old man who only gave his first name, Gezzy, said he had injected heroin and cocaine that day for fear of detention. Dressed in a navy blue tracksuit and a new shave, he spoke frankly about his ex-passing, girlfriend's who had a seven-week-old overdose.
"We needed this he said. "There's too many overdoses."
Mr. Krykant, a former self-addict, said he "learned very quickly that harm reduction is the most fundamental thing."
"People don't get opportunities after they're dead," he said.
Rooms for drug use are facilities lawfully allowing individuals to take illegal drugs with the supervision of qualified practitioners, in a safe atmosphere and with clean instruments. They have been shown to eliminate opioid deaths and blood-borne diseases like H.I.V., decrease public injection, and link patients to health facilities quicker.
"There was not one recorded death in all recorded injections in these spaces around the world," said Andrew McAuley, a professor of public health at Glasgow Caledonian University.
The first legal facility opened in Switzerland in the mid-1980s and in the last three decades about 200 were built throughout Europe, Canada and Australia.
Despite their success and the exceedingly dire opioid crisis in Scotland, they remain illegal in Britain.
The Scottish Government expressed solidarity, but
Westminster hasn't moved. "We have no plans to introduce drug-consumption rooms, and anyone running them would be committing a range of offenses," a British Home Office spokesperson said.
Yet Mr. Krykant feels it's easy to accuse Westminster.
"All we've heard is it's the U.K. State error," he added, adding: "We should have rooms for drug use in Scotland right now if political will prevailed."
With Scotland in charge of its own health services and police — a method known as devolution — Mr. Krykant and other supporters of drug reform claim that Lord Advocate, Scotland's chief lawyer, should have legal protection in the form of a "letter of comfort" stating that drug-consumption rooms should run without threat of criminal prosecution. (Lord Advocate gives naloxone similar advice this spring.)
Yet he has so far refused to do this, claiming the services need a legislative remedy covering civil responsibility and the full spectrum of criminal exemptions.
To date, investigators have not shut down the van or made arrests. In a quote, they seemed to indicate they'd leave plenty alone at least for now.
"Imposing some form of healthy consumption position contravenes the UK. Misuse of Drugs Act 1971," Police Scotland's assistant chief constable, Gary Ritchie, said in a tweet. "Any attempt to circumvent the law as it stands by providing an unregulated, unlicensed facility may expose vulnerable people to greater risk and harm."
For Mr. Krykant, the van's aim is to test drug policies rather than curtail Scotland's soaring drug-deaths.
"We may keep people alive, but it's always been a push for official establishment," he said. "We can't provide a service from one transit van to hundreds of people."
Mr. Krykant grew up in Falkirk, about 20 miles from Glasgow, claiming he started taking cocaine regularly at the age of 11. By 17, he injected heroin and a few years later found himself living on the street in Birmingham, England, desperate for money to feed his opioid abuse.
Ultimately, an advocacy committee in Birmingham met him and offered an opportunity to join a therapeutic rehab facility. "I grabbed my bag and enough drugs to take the train and got there he said.
He moved to Brighton in southern England and finished another initiative and has been clean for two decades now. He returned with his family to Falkirk in 2013 and began working in opioid recovery facilities.
But he began growing disillusioned with his work. As a charity outreach leader, his role was to screen homeless people in Glasgow for H.I.V. and hepatitis C.
"We'd walk away from people who tested negative, knowing they'd be back in the alley later that day he said.
He attended a conference funded by the Scottish government in February and learnt about drug-consumption rooms promise. He's fascinated. A few weeks later, he traveled to Copenhagen and met people who in 2011 opened Denmark's first mobile platform. Less than a year later, they legalized supervised injection sites.
"I was inspired by what happened," he said. "They quickly got the legal framework and have the world's largest safe consumer facility."
He flew back and wanted to do the same.
He spent 500 pounds of his own income, or around $650, and crowd-funded the remaining £2,400 to buy the well-traveled van and fit it with the required equipment. On Aug. 31—International Opioid Awareness Day—he first drove it to Parnie Lane.
"Nearly all interventions that work to help people were initiated through civil disobedience," said Alex Kral, an epidemiologist at the non-profit research institute RTI International. "Needle services, naloxone programs. Secure consumer pages aren't new."
Mr. Kral said Scotland was "completely parallel" to the United States. Despite efforts by cities such as Seattle and Philadelphia to create drug-consumption rooms, the nation has no legal locations. (An unidentified facility has been running since 2014.)
Mr. Krykant carefully selected the car park. A 30-second stroll is an alleyway where opioid addicts inject openly. Packed with discarded needles, foil slivers, and small spoons.
James Muir, 34, said when the van wasn't there he usually injected into surrounding alleys or parking lots around Glasgow. He said he'd been to the van three or four times already, saying I think it's really good." I asked if he was concerned about the prospect of police coming and charging him for drug possession.
"The guy reassured me he's locking the van," Mr. Muir told Mr. Krykant. "I trust."