A New Dawn For Drug Policy in Scotland was the topic of Common Weal’s monthly zoom meeting and the three speakers in attendance defiantly painted the picture that Scotland is in desperate need of a new approach.
Three superb speakers coming from different points of view brought about a really good discussion. We had Peter Krykant, project lead at charity Cranstoun, an incredible person with an interesting story. Peter put his own money and freedom on the line as he established the first mobile overdose prevention centre from a converted ambulance. A social experiment in itself to test the Scottish justice system and the police, as it turns out he broke no laws but saved lives and shamed those who claimed to be doing all that they could. Next we heard from Emma Crawshaw, the CEO of Crew. Crew is a national harm reduction charity established in 1992 by a group of community activists and peer educators. Their mission is to reduce drug and sexual health related harms and stigma, without judgement. A charity born from the 90s house music scene when people started to put down the alcohol and use drugs as a way to have a good time instead. The support that Crew provides is important to so many. Lastly we heard from Andy Cowan. Ten years ago Andy would have had nothing to say on the matter of drugs policy, but sadly in 2016 his bright and fun loving son Michael died from a drug overdose in Edinburgh. This thrust both Andy and his wife Margaret into drugs policy with the help of Anyone’s Child, a campaign organisation born from the charity Transform drugs. Although Andy a Wealth Manager by trade, believed before the death of his son Daniel that drugs are bad and we should simply be advocating for abstinence, yet today he very much believes that many of those who died from drug overdoses would be here today if they were able to purchase safe regulated supply of drugs.
Three different stories and in some places all three believed that different approaches would be better, yet there were some fundamental beliefs that all three campaigners believed deeply in. The biggest being that in its current state the Misuse of Drugs Act is not fit for purpose.
Is it a health issue or not? Well it certainly shouldn’t be a criminal one, that’s for sure. However, as Peter states is it a health issue when really it should be an issue over autonomy over one’s own body? As Emma pointed out though it is definitely progress that the Scottish government is starting to cut the association between drugs and criminality and place it in that health category, removing the ties it has with justice. One of the main over arching themes of the night was that at the core it didn’t really matter how it was approached, as first we need to address the issues that cause problem drug use. Most often this is down to inequalities. Poor housing, inadequate education, possibly a breakdown in the family unit, healthcare that isn’t sufficient and poverty.
There’s only so much we can do if we don’t have widespread acceptance that those who face inequalities are at a higher risk of developing drug problems. Just like our current mental health crisis, it is no consentience that the number of those who report having poor mental health are increasing, while those living in poverty and poor housing also increases. Depression is a symptom of poverty, problem drug use is similar. Both Emma and Peter very much agreed that we can no longer ignore the socio-economic factors attached to this issue.
However, it seems that the drug landscape in Scotland has changed over the years. Not only have we got an ageing demographic of people who have problems with drugs but the drugs people are using have changed dramatically. What seems to have surprised so many including Emma was the deaths and issues caused by Cocaine. Cocaine deaths have increased 1,175% from 2008-2020, a statistic that Emma believes there’s no way she would have believed in the 90s. Yet there is an over emphasis on the problems of opioids in Scotland, and although still a large problem when it comes to overdoses Scotland we can’t afford to create a hierarchy of drugs. When 93% of people who died from a drug overdose in 2021 had more than one drug in their system a holistic approach needs to be applied. Looking at the wider world we can already see the hierarchy and exceptionalism of drugs, where some drugs are deemed more acceptable than others. Legalising cannabis is becoming more acceptable, yet heroin is still very much stigmatised.
Perhaps even more worryingly is the rising rate that synthetic opioids are available, and are we ready for the avalanche of issues they could cause if they become even more popular. As Peter reminded us a synthetic heroin can be up to fifty times stronger than the real thing, and there’s no way for a user to know that. Thankfully Scotland and the rest of the UK don’t currently have the same issues as the US or Canada has when it comes to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl or Oxycontin. However, things can change fast within the drugs market and just like any market, it will meet the demand from consumers.
Even the market has changed in recent years. Purchasing drugs right now doesn’t mean going to some dodgy looking flat in a rough part of town, the ability to purchase drugs means they can be delivered right to your door or even purchased from the internet. Very available and plentiful. But the problem is, what’s in them? Any “illegal” drug purchased right now is completely unregulated and as Andy and Peter made clear people are none the wiser. Unlike when you order a glass of wine at a bar where you will know exactly where it was produced, its contents and strength. Currently none of that is known, and the same drug from the same dealer can have very varying strengths. More so as all of this is in the hands of criminal gangs.
As Andy explained that his son Daniel who decided to purchase some drugs to celebrate his new job, as you would maybe a bottle of wine etc. He too didn’t know the strength or mix of the drug he was taking and as a result he overdosed, never making it to his first day at his new job. Wouldn’t it have been safer if Daniel had been able to buy drugs straight from the pharmacy knowing what he was taking and how he should take them, perhaps it would have saved his life. Andy’s son Daniel used drugs recreationally he did not have a problem with drugs, he would not have been considered an addict, yet he still died from a lethal cocktail. Having a legalised system does in no way promote drug consumption, it is there to make it safer for everyone involved, from the person taking it, families, and those living in communities who experience crime fuelled by the drug market.
When you read the evidence and accept that large scale change is needed, the move to a legalised system begins to be one of the best options.
However, to get a legalised system may be a long way down the road. So we need to evaluate what we can do now. Something that was made clear through-out our zoom meeting was that the Scottish Government still aren’t doing enough and are relying too much on the excuse of reserved powers when it comes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Yes they have to abide by these laws but as Peter pointed out they have control of health and police so there is wiggle room. Why haven’t we had safe drug consumption room sooner? Peter proved that they could be achieved without breaking the law and that they were effective, progress is too slow and there’s no excuse. However, the plan for overdose prevention centres in Scotland paints the picture of a very medicalised approach and this is something many have discouraged from doing. From first-hand experience it has been proven that these centres are much more effective and less intimidating if they are not medicalised. A more casual and approachable front is the best method. Of course everyone involved is trained and a medical personnel is always on hand but quite often the system can be very off putting for those who are often on the fringes.
This was a fantastic first step for Common Weal reaching into drugs policy and justice, and we will be continuing to develop our knowledge and reach throughout the rest of the year. Although it would have been great to see more faces at our monthly zoom meeting centred around drug policy there was some interesting discussion and insight from some of the best drugs campaigners in Scotland. Thank you to everyone attended and asked some challenging questions. Make sure you look out for our next zoom meeting, details to come soon.