GLASGOW city centre could house the UK's first drug injecting facility under radical plans to tackle rising HIV cases and risk to the public from discarded needles.

The Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership (ADP) is setting up a working group to explore the potential of piloting a facility and heroin-assisted treatment.

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Public health chiefs said Scotland was "decades behind" other European countries in tackling problem drug use.

Research has shown that such facilities do not increase drug use, frequency of injecting or higher rates of local drug-related crime.

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Current estimates suggest some 500 people are injecting drugs in public places in the city centre.

Last year, only 16 used needles were returned for safe disposal out of 13,000 distributed to drug addicts.

The majority are said to be individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, recent imprisonment and poverty.

A health spokesman said: "These individuals are substantially responsible for the majority of discarded needles in public areas such as alleyways, car parks, parks, public toilets, and closes, putting the general public at risk and contributing to other related public order problems."

Last year police and council staff in Glasgow dealt with hundreds of instances of discarded needles and drug misuse in the city centre.

Habitual public injectors’ are at risk of blood-borne viruses, overdose and drug-related death, and other injecting-related complications such as serious bacterial infections.

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Last year saw an HIV outbreak in the city with 47 new infections compared to the previously consistent annual average of 10.

There have also been several other outbreaks of serious infectious diseases such as botulism and anthrax.

The health board said it was too early to say where the unit might be housed.

A business case will be compiled for consideration by the ADP in early autumn.

If approved, the ADP will make recommendations to Glasgow City Integrated Joint Board (IJB) – the decision-making body of the Glasgow Health & Social Care Partnership.

Engagement with the Scottish Government is also required to ensure the legal framework is in place to allow any facility to be developed.

Medically supervised drug injecting facilities have been running since the mid-1980s with 90 facilities across 61 cities currently running.

The majority are in Europe, there is one in Vancouver, one in Sydney and approval has been granted for facilities in Dublin and across France.

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Heroin assisted treatment is the next progression for people for whom current treatments have been ineffective, and who continue to use street drugs, with all the risks that entails – injecting-related infections and overdose.

Susanne Millar, chief officer of Planning, Strategy and Commissioning for the Glasgow City HSCP, and chair of the ADP, said: “There are approximately 5,500 drug injectors in Glasgow with around 500 of these injecting in public in the city centre.

"While this is a tiny percentage of the city’s population, it has a huge level of need and consists of a huge cost to the public purse.

“People injecting drugs in public spaces are experiencing high levels of harm and are impacting on the wider community.

"We need to make our communities safer for all people living in and visiting the city, including those who publicly inject.

“Last year, the Assertive Outreach Team dealing with homeless injectors distributed almost 13,000 sterile needles. Of that number, only 16 or 0.1% of the used needles were returned to an injecting equipment centre for safe disposal.”

Dr Emilia Crighton, director of Public Health at NHSGGC, and vice chair of the ADP, said: “We are decades behind other countries in the way we tackle this problem.

"In line with our current research, it’s clear we need to move beyond the current model in order to meet the needs of our communities and this very vulnerable group.

“In recent years Glasgow has been at the centre of outbreaks of anthrax, botulism and most recently HIV infection in people who inject drugs.

“This public injecting group has high rates of hospital admissions, incarceration and homelessness.

"Conventional treatment and services have not been as effective as we would want in reducing health risks and the resulting costs.

“Our ultimate goal is for drug users to recover from their addiction and remain drug free.

“However, until someone is ready to seek and receive help to stop using drugs it is important to keep them as safe as possible while do they continue to use drugs.”