ALMOST 700,000 syringes were handed out to drug addicts in the Lothians in one year, new figures have shown.
The number of needles given away rose by more than 65,000, with intravenous drug users in the area making use of an average of 210 needles each over the 12 months.
Drug paraphernalia, including spoons for “cooking up” heroin, citric acid to dissolve the drug and filters, aimed at removing impurities, was also available on the NHS.
More than 500 kits containing the drug naloxone – which is given to heroin addicts in the event of an overdose – were handed out by NHS Lothian last year, in addition to the 683,952 needles.
Supporters of the initiatives said the figures showed the success of the programmes, which are aimed at driving down infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C among drug users and reducing deaths.
The schemes were criticised by the Scottish Tories, who warned giving out needles was “feeding the beast” and could make taking drugs too easy.
Grant Sugden, director of the Capital-based Waverley Care charity, which works to help people with HIV and Hepatitis C, said giving out clean needles had reduced the spread of infections.
In 2010, of 360 people who were diagnosed as being HIV positive in Scotland, only 19 were infected through the use of needles.
Mr Sugden said: “I think needle exchange has been an effective solution to HIV transmission. Edinburgh became known as the Aids capital of Europe in the 1980s and harm reduction, like needle exchanges, came in after that.
“I don’t think providing clean needles is making drug use more attractive or promoting it. We need a range of solutions so that people with a problem get the help they need.
“Abstinence is right for some people but it’s not for everybody. Giving out clean needles is part of the solution but it’s not the only answer. People need educational, social and community-based support and access to rehab.”
Only the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area saw more needles distributed than in the Lothians in 2010-11, with more than 1.2 million clean syringes given out there.
The figures on naloxone kits were closer, with 520 given out in the Lothians compared with 623 in the Glasgow area.
The drug contains an opiate antidote which can temporarily reverse the effects of an heroin overdose, providing more time for an ambulance to arrive.
The Conservatives raised concerns that the kits could lead addicts to believe they had a “fall-back option” and risk higher doses.
Tory health spokesperson and deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “We have long argued the best approach to getting people off drugs like heroin is an abstinence-based approach.
“We cannot simply keep feeding the beast and hoping the problem will go away, because it will not. I appreciate the role dispensing needles plays in reducing diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but at what point do we say we are simply making the activity of taking drugs far too easy?”
Jim Sherval, specialist in public health for NHS Lothian, said: “Harm reduction practices such as needle exchange have played a key role in reducing harm and supporting recovery since their introduction in Lothian in 1989.”