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Bosses defend £6m pricetag for drug rehab unit modelled on Italian commune

Bosses of a radical rehab initiative modelled on a controversial Italian commune have claimed every penny of £6 million funding will be well spent.

River Garden Auchincruive is very closely modelled on the abstinence based San Patrignano rehab community in Italy.

The huge enterprise near Rimini’s was the subject of a Netflix mini-series, which explored its colourful history – which includes episodes of residents being chained up like prisoners and beaten on the command of the man who set it up.

Despite the more extreme episodes in San Patrignano’s history, it continues to flourish in Rimini, putting work at the centre of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

The community funds itself, making profit through its residents with ventures like winemaking, baking, weaving, leatherwork and other crafts.

In 40 years, it claims to have helped 26,000 people, with 1000 residents right now and a success rate of 72 per cent of those who complete the course getting free from drugs.

The Scottish Government was won over by the positive and radical aspects of the San Patrignano model, in allocating £6 million to Auchincruive, near Ayr.

700 people take a seat for the first lunch shift served by a group of 55 people, all drink and drug abstinent, at San Patrignano therapeutic community.

The bumper award has not impressed some campaigners, who believe the sum is disproportionately high compared to that given to other established care providers who applied for cash.

But the chairman of the ambitious project, which will house a maximum of 57 residents, has made assurances that only the best elements of the San Patrignano model, adapted to fit Scottish society, will be in play.

William Smith said he was aware that his venture had attracted a major block of funding in comparison to rival bidders and said he was humbled and intent on delivering value for money.

Smith said: “We fully respect all the other excellent projects applying for funding and we are humbled by this award, but we believe we can make a significant difference in many people’s lives.

“This project is now really part of the broader community and our site is open, with people able to walk through whenever they want, which they do you work with dogs, or ride a horse.

“This means interaction with our residents and witnessing our fantastic cafe and gardens and seeing how lives can be transformed.”

Bosses defend £6m pricetag for drug rehab unit modelled on Italian commune
River Garden drug rehab centre celebrate opening their new visitor cafe.

Smith said that work underpins the recovery process at Auchincruive, which gives residents life skills and promotes a feeling of worth and belonging.

The venture, brought to Scotland by Auchincruive founder Mark Bitel, also takes inspiration from the long established Basta community in Sweden, which operates more fragmented, smaller scale programmes.

Auchincruive also seeks to allow time for families to repair damage done by addiction, with frequent visits welcomed if possible.

He said: “We are humble and we are very much accepting that we will have to learn as we go along what works best in a Scottish context.

Bosses defend £6m pricetag for drug rehab unit modelled on Italian commune
River Garden drug rehab centre celebrates opening heir new visitor cafe

“We’re learning from the volunteers that are coming in to help us and we are learning from our residents, so we are very much a work on progress.

“This money will make a huge difference, primarily in that it will increase the beds to a maximum of 57.”

Bosses defend £6m pricetag for drug rehab unit modelled on Italian commune

The Netflix mini-series on San Patriagno – San Pa: Sins of the Saviour – examines the methods of charismatic Vincenzo Muccioli.

The scandalous history of the facility seems a million miles away from the tranquil Auchincruive near Ayr, whose main social enterprises are currently a popular cafe and spectacular gardens, geared towards producing flowers and shrubs commercially.

Muccioli formed the commune in 1978 after growing frustrated at the state’s inability to tackle the heroin crisis that was gripping the country.

He rejected the reliance of methadone as the prevailing treatment for heroin addiction, as that was creating a generation he believed was addicted to another harmful substance.

That situation mirrors the debate that has raged in Scotland, where methadone has been the dominant “harm reduction” method at a time when drug deaths have gone through the roof.

Critics have claimed that Scotland should do more to help addicts achieve drug free lives if they are properly motivated and supported to do so.

Addicts were invited to stay at Muccioli’s 500-acre farm for free, as long as they pledged to give up drugs and took up a job to help make the community self-sufficient.

During his time in charge of the commune, Muccioli became known for extreme and sometimes inhumane treatment of residents.

In October 1980 Muccioli was arrested for allegedly kidnapping after a young woman managed to escape after spending 15 days chained up in a ‘cell’.

When police arrived they found four people chained in kennels and pigeon coops in the freezing cold.

Muccioli spent 30 days in prison and when he emerged, signed a statement agreeing to no longer use violence or physical restraints.

However he remained defiant, saying he ‘didn’t regret his actions’ because it was what was required to keep the addicts on site and in treatment.

Despite the controversy, San Patrignano won international acclaim for its results and many residents also praised Muccioli’s methods.

The River Garden model relies on total abstinence from drugs and alcohol – ideals that were all but thrown out by previous health ministers in the current SNP government.

The award raised the eyebrows of some campaigners, who claim it is disproportionate and may not offer value for money.

Bosses defend £6m pricetag for drug rehab unit modelled on Italian commune
Annemarie Ward has been an influential voice on behalf of those with “lived experience” of drugs

Annemarie Ward, of the FAVOR charity, said: “I’m not in essence against what’s going on at Auchincruive but the main foundation of this new national Mission is meant to be following the evidence and there is, as it stands, no established proper evidence that it will work.

“I read in newspaper reports nearly three years ago that they had seven clients and would be adding one every six weeks, which means they should be up to 30 by now. But the total is still seven, which causes me a bit of concern.

“All I’m aware of with Auchincruive is a ‘proof of concept’ paper that was published, which effectively states that it might be worth a punt.

“Meanwhile there are 200 existing rehab beds lying empty in facilities that are proven to work, so it seems there is a very clear disproportionality in the huge level of funding given to this project.”

Ward wholeheartedly welcomed the separate £5 million funding for the LEAP project in Edinburgh, which offers extended rehab and detox facilities.

She said: “The evidence base for it is incredibly strong built up over many years by completely dedicated and committed people, the majority of whom have recovered.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson stressed the “urgent need for innovation” in the provision of residential treatment.

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The spokesperson said: “River Garden is a training and social enterprise development centre offering a residential rehabilitation programme for people in the early stages of recovery from addiction, helping people towards health and well-being through a personalised programme.

“The facility has been modelled on effective centres from other countries, such as San Patrignano, however the service has been adapted to fit a Scottish context.”

Drugs minister Angela Constance defended the change in policing
Drugs minister Angela Constance

Scottish drugs minister Angela Constance has promised to deliver initiatives that are radical, different and better than before, incorporating both harm reduction and abstinence based methods.

The First Minister announced a new national mission to reduce drug related deaths and harms in January 2021. This is supported by an investment of £50 million per year for the next five years.

Of that, £32 million is targeted at front-line services in 2021 to 2022.




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