Kaitlin Dryburgh – 21 July 2022
In the past twenty years 13,406 people have lost their lives to drug overdoses in Scotland. In all the political in-fighting, statistics, and government statements it sometimes easy to forget that these individuals had families, loved-ones, that they lost the opportunity to possibly start their own families, have a job, make memories, and grow old. That for one reason or another, many of these people fell down the spiral of addiction and couldn’t get off, but what is Scotland doing to stop this continuing, and change the tide on the tsunami of people we have failed? Paul Sweeney MSP believes his new Drug Death Prevention Bill could be the beginning of Scotland making steps in the right direction.
It is no longer breaking news that drug deaths in Scotland are alarmingly high, perhaps we have become numb to the yearly report that drug deaths have increased. Conceivably this is because they have increased consecutively since 2013, 137% over nine years. Since 2022 has produced 285 suspected drug overdoses in the first three months it is plausible that we’re heading for the big ten.
Put in perspective, that works out to one Scot dying from a drug overdose every six hours. This is a national crisis which has resulted in Scotland having the highest drug deaths per capita in all of Europe. We are in a league of our own, other Northern European countries do not come close, Sweden along with Norway are joint second when concerning the number of drug deaths experienced per million residents at 77, Scotland comes in first with 318. Yet with this disgraceful track-record there hasn’t been any radical change to drug policy in either Scotland or the United Kingdom. Perhaps it could be seen that the current Scottish government have the right ideological approach when concerning drug and alcohol abuse, as there is a push to treat this is a health issue rather than the historical criminal approach, which has rendered itself completely useless and damaging, however an overhaul to the system to reduce drug harms and rehabilitate has been too slow to come.
Drug policy is perhaps one of the most long-suffering areas that has been steeped in misinformation and long been affected with the shocking ability of politicians to overlook the evidence and instead reach for their manifesto and political party’s ideology. Current climates and events have often clouded the ability of Westminster politicians to apply evidence to their drug policies, such as the 80s HIV epidemic, the idiotic “War on Drugs” or New Labour’s winning crime and punishment strategy. However, the drug policies that we have today are still heavily rooted in the policies laid out a hundred years ago. The 1920’s saw the establishment for what is known as the ”British system” where those who are addicted to drugs can be safely prescribed stable opioids to slowly wean themselves off. This was laid out in the 1924 Rolleston report which concluded that addiction was not a choice but instead a disease, of course this medical certainty was not graciously accepted and took a battering through-out the years, with “medical” articles trying to disprove this fact up until the 80s. However, the question must be asked as to why, if we have known that addiction is a disease for almost a hundred years, is Westminster still attempting to treat it as criminal issue?
This is clearly evident in Patel’s new proposed white paper titled ‘Swift, Certain, Tough, New consequences for drug possession’, in which a person caught for the first time in possession of an illicit drug will be given a fixed penalty notice and be forced to pay for and attend a drugs awareness course, failure to pay will result in prosecution. It’s hard not to ask where they have plucked this from and why they have chosen to criminalise poverty? The oppressive Drugs Misuse Act has a lot to answer for and has allowed for a pattern in Westminster which is overly selective in their approach to implementing evidence in their policy, as there is no way of jailing your way out of this issue.
However, that is not to say that Scotland is not free to a certain extent to implement their own drug policy and the question of “why is Scotland so bad?” often crops up and proves to be a very difficult question to answer. Some would say its poor government response, which would be hard to disprove in the face of the continuing severity of the situation, but it is a deep-rooted issue dating back several decades perpetuated in some areas by the breakdown of communities, spurred on by poor health outcomes and most importantly poverty. Thatcher policies have had a long-lasting effect in the most deprived areas of Scotland where small communities were decimated with unemployment, allowing for poverty and poor health to take hold. This significant happening has had many knock-on effects to what is the current situation. An example of such being the current older generations abusing drugs, over the years the age-group most at risk of drug overdoses has slowly been climbing, to the most likely being 35-44, followed closely by 45-54. This aging group of users are products of the adverse social conditions they started to experience in the 80s, either directly or in-directly. So although Scotland is in desperate need of a new approach to drug policy to reduce the deaths it must be understood that drug abuse is a symptom of people’s surroundings, and a holistic approach is required to tackle this when it comes to preventing drug abuse.
As I said though we need radical change, change that would be radical for Scotland but perhaps not for other countries, new tried and tested methods that would curb the increase in drug deaths and would help to encourage people into recovery. Drug consumption rooms (DCRs) or Overdose prevention centres (OPCs) have been introduced in many countries, such as USA, Canada, Netherlands, and Portugal and have been successful in saving lives and in some instances allowing those to begin the journey to recovery.
This is what Paul Sweeney Labour MSP is campaigning for with his Drug Death Prevention Bill, which he believes will be effective in saving lives by introducing OPCs and establishing a Drug Deaths Council in Scotland. Perhaps the catalyst for this bill is a man called Peter Krykant, his story hitting the news as his unofficial OPC, in the form of a converted van, hit the streets of Glasgow from 2020-21. As a previous drug addict he knew the current system wasn’t working and people were dying in his city, with nobody doing anything to help. Taking the brave decision to start his own OPC put him in danger of arrest and prosecution under the Drugs Misuse Act, but what he did was provide a clean and safe environment for those to “consume drugs”, access clean needles, first aid supplies and Naloxone supplies, the opioid reversal treatment. Peter’s van saved lives as he helped to reverse the effects of several overdoses. However, having volunteered in Peter’s van, Sweeney details that the van was much more than a medicalised setting allowing individuals to administer drugs but was brilliant at building relationships and allowing people to feel validated. Nutrition was an important factor, making sure people were fed, often providing a cereal bar and protein shake was enough to make a difference. It was small gestures that would put people back in touch with a society that they often feel excluded from, for example they helped an individual replace one of the wheels on their wheelchair.
This is the approach Sweeney proposes in his bill, citing other OPCs in New York which looked to de-medicalise centres (however there will be a trained medical personnel on site) and throw away a sense of authority which can often be quite intimidating and off-putting, as Peter found it took some individuals a while to trust him and the other volunteers. In some cases they were able to point people in the right direction to get help, which otherwise may have not happened. It’s also important to mention that along with saving the lives of those who had an overdose, it will help alleviate the current rise in HIV cases in cities such as Glasgow, where needle sharing helps HIV spread like wildfire.
The discussion surrounding OPCs in the UK has been going for quite some time, however the previous understanding of it has been that it is in breach of the Drugs Misuse Act but Sweeney is unequivocally confident that this will pose no danger. The success of Peter’s van without prosecution being a big boost to morale but also the Lord Advocate’s decision to include Class A drugs in the recorded police warning guidelines, which grants police discretion to give warnings for possession instead of arrest.
This is no simple fix and Sweeney doesn’t pretend that it is, but it is a start. Along with the creation of OPCs the bill looks to establish a Drugs Death Council. The difference between the Council and the current Drugs Death Taskforce being that it will be a total separate entity from government, separate from any minister, and can be as honest as it needs to be without repercussions. As Sweeney states there needs to be a more humble and healthy relationship between public agencies and the government, one that isn’t so politically minded. This may perhaps explain why the Drugs Death Taskforce has been so plagued with the inability to make any long-lasting difference.
However more profoundly what Sweeney would like is for the “moral panic” surrounding drugs to be ditched, like it or not they will always exist in our society. We can lower the deaths, fund more routes into recovery and deter people from abusing drugs, but unfortunately drug abuse is part of our reality, so let’s drop the historic “war on drugs” rhetoric and modernise our approach to drugs policy. If we are to really get to the core of drug abuse, we need to look at the deprivation and poverty in Scotland and help communities recover from the desperate situation we are currently experiencing.
More information concerning the Drug Death Prevention Bill can be accessed here: https://www.parliament.scot/-/media/files/legislation/proposed-members-bills/220523–opc-consultation-final.pdf
The consultation period for the Drug Death Prevention Bill runs from 25th May-17th August, if you would like to respond, access the link here: https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/OP2FZL/