YESTERDAY was a bad, ugly, dispiriting day that appalled and sickened all of us involved in the debate about drugs deaths in Scotland. Every one of these 1264 deaths is a son, a daughter a brother, sister, father, mother. Every one of these deaths was entirely unnecessary and avoidable and we should be saying one word – enough.
We have to take the radical action that will turn this round and start to make a difference. There will always be a lot that we can do but until we do the “big” things we will only be managing the crisis, such is the scale of the task.
My Scottish Affairs Committee conducted the most extensive inquiry ever undertaken into problem drug use in Scotland. We heard from governments, service providers, the police and judiciary, the health services and those with lived experience. All agreed that the big levers of change need to be pulled in order to have this effectively addressed.
Where it is the case that the Scottish Government could and should do more (something we recommended), we have to acknowledge without the full range of powers we will always be approaching this with one hand tied behind our back.
It is the drugs laws that create the legislative environment and context that the rehabilitation and support services have to operate in. As long as our drugs legislation treats drugs users as criminals, all the rehabilitation services in the world will be severely compromised in their ability to make a difference.
And we have to look to the international examples. Portugal had a drugs epidemic roughly on the same scale as Scotland. In the early 1990s, every Portuguese family either had someone caught in heroin’s grip or knew a family affected.
What they did was something remarkable. As a nation they collectively decided this could not go on and initiated a national debate, assembling a government-led commission to address the crisis.
The result was almost as bold as it was pioneering. Portugal decided a criminal justice approach should be replaced by an exclusively health-based one. It decriminalised all drugs for personal use. But it didn’t just leave it at that … it assembled what it called a “dissuasion commission” to address all drug users brought to the attention of the authorities. Almost 30 years later, Portugal has just about the lowest rates of drugs deaths in Europe.
While this was an approach that worked, it is not an approach that is readily available to us in Scotland as we only have some of the necessary responsibilities.
Drug laws are exclusively reserved and it is the view of the Westminster Government that will prevail. If the two governments are aligned then there is no problem, but right now they’re not. The Scottish Government takes a health-based approach to drug use while the UK Government takes an ideological view about drug use based on the personal responsibility of the drug user. For the UK, drug use is a deviancy that has to be addressed by the law not a health issue that needs to be remedied by treatment.
It is this that creates the stigma associated with the view of drug users as “criminals” and “junkies”. This stigma is perhaps the single biggest impediment to properly addressing all the societal and cultural issues around problem drug use.
The UK Government is therefore also prone to overlook the evidence base. For example, its view on drug consumption rooms is that “there is no safe way to take drugs”, so all calls for DCRs are ignored based on a deeply held view on drug-taking. It doesn’t matter that all the evidence in the world suggests that safe consumption facilities save lives and directs people to services it will always be trumped by their ideological point of view.
In our report, the Scottish Affairs Committee recommended to the UK Government that we decriminalise all drugs for personal use and that drug consumption facilities be piloted. This, inevitably, was rejected by the UK Government. Since then Peter Krykant unofficial DCR facility has arrived on the streets of Glasgow, presenting the most significant challenge to our approach to dealing with drugs issues in Scotland.
Police forces know our drugs laws make absolutely no sense. All the police forces that appeared in front of my committee had devised ingenious ways to operate at the very edge of drug law legislation. Being on the frontline, they see for themselves the absolute failure of criminalisation.
Then there are the legal powers open to us. When he appeared at our committee, the Lord Advocate could not support the concept of a “letter of comfort” for drug consumption facilities or some sort of “legal exemption” because of his responsibility to uphold and enforce the law. But with the total refusal of the UK Government to accept our recommendations the Lord Advocate should now review what is available to him under his responsibilities and look to solutions that would “allow” a facility to operate.
There is no particular reason why Scotland has such a problem with drugs deaths. In the evidence presented to us, the concentration of poverty and alienation caused by de-industrialisation were often referenced, as were issues around trauma associated with the numbers that Scotland places in care.
The fact that so many drugs deaths are men in their 40s and 50s also suggests there is some sort of historical/cultural factor at play. Lastly we can not rule out the under-funding of services and availability of rehabilitation beds.
But most of that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how it is addressed that is important. This is an emergency and it is an emergency that needs big solutions. We now have to use everything available to address it the best we can. More than that, we need all the necessary responsibilities and powers to ensure that we deal with the totality of the problem.