The war on drugs has failed

Written by Kenny MacAskill on 17 August 2017 in Comment

Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill calls for a more radical approach to drugs

867 drug related deaths in Scotland are a tragedy. Many are the Trainspotting Generation that illicit little public sympathy.  

But everyone is someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, and none grew up dreaming of that lifestyle or choosing to die that way. 

Sometimes fate but more often adversity intervened, resulting in an addiction from which they couldn’t escape.  


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Figures are higher than feared and yet next year’s toll will likely be worse.  

For sure, Scotland has social issues that result in the desperation that drives much of it, as well as cultural issues that fuel the fire.  

Some argue that drug use will always be with us, as it has been down through the ages, with only the drug of choice changing. That may be the case whether through hedonism or hopelessness. But the levels of abuse and the extent of the loss of life are neither inevitable nor preventable. Action is therefore needed. 

The Scottish Conservatives rightly described the toll as truly appalling and correctly said that it was twice the figure for the rest of the UK. So, the Scottish Government do require to take some responsibility and need to act.  

However, that’s only part of the drug cocktail that damages Scotland. 

The UK rate was in turn treble that of the rest of the EU and ten times that of Portugal. Other countries with similar challenges are managing so much better.  

Drug laws are currently reserved to Westminster where a 'war on drugs' strategy has been pursued. 

 That apocalyptic title is a misnomer as, at best, it would be a civil war, when in reality it’s a health and social problem. But, it has failed south of the Border, as evidenced by the spice epidemic on the streets of Manchester and riots in English prisons.     

For the SNP, drugs must become an area in which they seek powers, not be the policy that dare not speak its name. That silence may have been understandable when the referendum was ongoing, now it’s simply cowardly as tragedy unfolds. 

Moreover, as the serious organised crime fuelled by the drug trade escalates, the war on drugs strategy is being shown to be a failure.  

The levels of violence and its intensity are increasing on Scottish streets, as shown by cold blooded assassinations and drive-by shootings. Worse will only follow, which is also why there has to be a better way.    

So, the Road to Recovery - which was the right policy for the time - is needing reviewed and refreshed. That’ll no doubt now be done with some alacrity.  

However, the policy pursued by some before it of echoing Nancy Reagan in “just say no” was as disastrous here as in the USA.  

Abstinence works for some but not all, and there needs to be a continued emphasis on harm reduction. Help must be given to those who want to stop and not simply leave them parked as the living dead, until life finally expires.  

Methadone must remain the solution for some but not be the option for all. 

Even within the current reserved drug laws there’s still some limited room for manoeuvre and immediate steps that can be taken.  

The Injection Room for Glasgow must be opened and similar ones provided in other communities. Those facilities are needed to save lives. 70 per cent of those who died were aged over 35 and 88 per cent involved opiates.  

Premises where they can be dispensed drugs under supervision are essential, otherwise it’s backstreet or dingy den with consequent dangers.  

Of course, there are legal challenges but they’re not insurmountable. Both the Police and the Crown have discretion and there’s also just plain common sense. 

The growing post code lottery for treatment and rehabilitation needs addressed.  

It’s right that it’s devolved to health boards but they need held to account. Of course, they’re facing budgetary pressures and conflicting priorities but they can’t though be allowed to forget their responsibility to provide, even for those who are hard to treat and often harder for the public to empathise with. But done it must be as their failure is simply passing the buck to other hard pressed public services whether social work or criminal justice, as well as ultimately costing lives as the figures disclose.  

It’s not just rehab services or injection rooms that are required but spaces to meet that are drug free with mentoring and support.  

However, though all those actions would be beneficial they’ll still be inadequate until there’s an overall review of drug policy and a wider change in how it’s tackled.  

The SNP have genuflected towards support for medicinal cannabis but failed to seek the powers. Control over drug policy has been eschewed whilst other powers demanded. But why? It can’t be they believe Westminster is either right in what they’re doing or better placed to achieve it.  

There’s a better way, as other countries have shown. Portugal addresses it as a health problem and its reduced criminality and saved lives. Drugs are still taken but the situation is significantly better than Scotland. 

 It’s time for the Scottish Government to be radical in action and bold in demands. 

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