It is no secret to anyone that Scotland has a major addiction problem that has ruined countless lives. Alcohol, as well as both legal and illegal drugs, lie at the heart of an epidemic that has formed a visible crack in Scottish society. A recent announcement from Nicola Sturgeon has seen the creation of a dedicated junior ministerial role that aims to reduce the harm and deaths from drug misuse and supporting the rehabilitation process of those addicted to drugs. The first holder of this Minister for Drug Policy role is Angela Constance, who has a background in social sciences and seems to be adequately passionate about making a desperately needed change.
All of this is well and good and will hopefully prove to be a big step in the right direction but the symbolic gestures of a minute’s silence during parliamentary proceedings and an occasional apology are realistically not helping anyone. Drug deaths are the primary risk to our country. The statistics are clear to see, with our drug related mortality rate a staggering fifteen times higher than the European average. We have, by far, the single worst drug problem in all of Europe. In deaths attributed to drugs per million people, we stand alone at the top by some margin. Even compared to our neighbours we are dramatically worse off, with a drug-death rate that is around 3.5 times the UK average.
The latest available data from 2019 shows that things are not improving but have hit a new low. A steady increase in these deaths since the first report back in 1996 tells us that this crisis shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. In 2019 alone 1,264 people were taken from their families by drug addiction. This is not even mentioning the alcohol related deaths and alcoholism that tears even more families apart. Having left it this late to take major action is damming enough of the government, but that is not to say that these new measures could not prove to start providing the care and support that we have been in desperate need of for years.
Tackling an issue as complex as drug addiction is by no means straight forward. In fact, much of the struggles that governments have in managing such problems lie in the very thinking of ‘tackling’ or ‘cracking down’ on the problem. After all, what we are facing is a health crisis: an epidemic, not a criminal issue. Of course, there are crimes very closely associated to the drug problem, but the roots of addiction often stem from trauma and mental illness. These complicated matters cannot simply be ‘tackled’ but must be approached in a compassionate and human way. The leftover brain rot that we in the West deal with from the ridiculous proposal of a ‘War on Drugs’ in the 70s from Nixon and his deplorable colleagues has resulted in our maladroit handling of such a complex problem.
Despite this setback in attitudes and approach, there are also positive examples being set in other countries. If we can see past the North Atlantic complacency shared by the UK and USA then we may find inspiration into how we step back from the ledge that we now stand over. In 2001 Portugal introduced a ground-breaking law that decriminalised the possession and use of illicit drugs. The law only covered up to a ten days’ supply of drugs, meaning that dealers and suppliers could still be arrested and charged. This law came after Portugal found themselves in a similar position to ours, back in the 90s. An opioid problem that had gripped the nation saw Lisbon face similar sensational labels that we now see used in Glasgow or Dundee. This change in policy, however, signalled a monumental shift from treating drug addiction as a criminal issue to a public health issue.
Whilst we cannot copy and paste another country’s solutions onto our own unique problems, we can certainly learn from this dramatic shift in public perception. Now sometimes referred to as the ‘Portugal model’ managed to drop the number of heroin users in the country to one quarter of their initial 100,000 users. Portugal now sits firmly on the opposite end of the drug deaths spectrum from Scotland, marking a truly commendable turnaround that we, as a nation, should aspire to.
The reason that I highlight such a case is, again, not to try and mimic their solutions but to instil hope into a situation that seems so dire. Obviously, we need to find our own way out of this mess, which will mean confronting some very ugly demons that haunt our country. Years of austerity and a system that never seems to change the way that we want, or even at all have definitely manifested a defeatist and cynical shared national voice. Acting towards making a real change for the better in our country could take many forms but it is clear that action is needed urgently. The scars of addiction can be felt in most Scottish families and if we carry on like this then soon the damage done will be felt by generations to come. Trauma is never isolated and can often be passed down through families, like a disease that threatens to one day take over your entire life.
So, with a reported 60,000 people suffering from a drug problem at any given point, what can we do to reverse these figures? The change should first come in attitudes, such as the outdated view of drug related crimes as isolated incidents. The Scottish Government declaring a ‘public health emergency’ and setting up new departments to specifically manage drug related issues is a good start in changing narrative from criminal to health related. Another key step that we will hopefully see more of is the implementation of such services as drug consumption rooms. These facilities aim to provide a safe place for drug users where they can get test kits and are put in immediate contact with support workers. Studies have shown that drug consumption rooms have reduced the number of deaths from overdose, as well as reducing the transmission of drug related blood borne diseases like HIV and hepatis.
Introducing these new facilities as well as increasing funding of drug support services and allocating more governmental resources (as Scotland has begun to do with the creation of the Minister for Drug Policy role). The changing of traditional attitudes may be a harder process to measure, but it would hopefully be brought about by governmental services and charities leading by example. At the end of the day though, drug deaths are not isolated from other social issues. Poverty is shown as being directly correlated with drug use and we have faced increased rates of poverty since the industrialisation of the 1980s. Turning around this trend will be the hardest challenge that modern Scotland has faced. There is no easy answer or clear path out of this situation, with generations of Scots being affected by addiction and drug deaths. Scotland needs to prioritise drug and mental health issues and the government must take drastic action before we reach a point of no return.
Words by Ewan Blacklaw