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by Louise Wilson
30 July 2021
Comment: 1,339 lives cut short by drugs, but still the political blame game goes on

Colin Fisher / Alamy Stock Photo

Comment: 1,339 lives cut short by drugs, but still the political blame game goes on

One rainy afternoon several years ago, I gave a bit of cash to a homeless person on Byres Road in Glasgow. It wasn’t much – just a couple of pound coins I happened to have in my purse.

“Once we get to the restaurant, I’m going to tell you why what you just did was wrong,” said the person I happened to be walking with at the time. True to his word, once we were seated at a table and had ordered our drinks, he proceeded to tell me that the person I had just given a paltry bit of spare change to was probably a drug addict. Services existed, he explained, to get homeless people off the street and therefore anyone that was still on the street was on it by choice – because they had refused treatment for their addiction.

At the time I was too stunned to respond. I hadn’t expected this from a friend who, for the most part, was fairly liberal. Indeed, that’s why the exchange has stuck with me almost a decade later.

I remember that conversation today as Scotland mourns a further 1,339 drug-related deaths. Each of those deaths a tragedy. Each a human being whose life was sadly cut short. Each an entirely preventable loss.

In the hours that have followed since the National Records of Scotland release this morning, our politicians have spoken about the “heartbreak” of loved ones, the “stain” on society, the fact this needs to be a “wake-up call”. And of course, the politics. Always the politics.

Nicola Sturgeon insisted her government would not “shirk the responsibility” of these deaths, pointing to funding services and supporting those in need. Yet in that same Twitter thread, she also placed some blame at Westminster, highlighting drugs law remains reserved.

Meanwhile, those on the opposing side of the constitutional debate almost gleefully point out that the rate of drug deaths in Scotland is far higher than that of England. Why, they ask, are Scotland’s numbers so much worse?

The truth is these rising deaths are failures of both the Scottish and UK Governments. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is undoubtedly out of date. 50 years on we know treating drugs as a public health issue rather than a justice issue results in better outcomes. But the Scottish Government’s failure to provide equal access to healthcare, good housing and economic opportunities also means those living in deprived areas are now 18 times more likely to die due to drugs than those in the wealthiest parts of Scotland.

Politicians of all hues need to realise the problem is a shared one. They must also acknowledge there is no simple fix.

Abstention programmes may work for some people in recovery, but it won’t be suitable for others. Residential care should always be an option, but it won’t be a practical solution for some. And to ensure recovery is long-lasting (without bringing shame to those who relapse), there must be access to counselling, benefits help, housing, education and employment.

In the current political climate, I question whether any of this is possible. There is too much point-scoring, too many expressions of concern, too little action. For all the offers to “work with anyone” to find a solution, they have done little good for the thousands of people who have died.

I don’t know if that homeless person in Glasgow was battling with a substance problem. Either way, I hope he got the help he not only needed, but deserved. This is about more than politics. It’s about real people.

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