Lord Advocate's intervention does not mean the drug-death crisis has been solved
Sometimes it can be a little difficult to keep up.
No sooner are we given the good – though still frankly awful – news that Scotland’s drug-death figures fell by a fifth in 2022 than we learn they rose by seven per cent in the first six months of this year. ‘Only’ 1,051 people died a drug-related death in 2022, down from 1,330 the year before, while 600 lost their lives between January and June, up from 562 in the same period last year.
Though it is obviously impossible to read anything into short-term changes in the stats, it is clear that the 2022 improvement was a fragile one and that long-called-for action to properly turn the tide needs to be taken. Which is why there was much cheering when Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain confirmed she would not seek to prosecute anyone for possession if the mooted pilot of a safe-consumption room goes ahead in Glasgow.
The Scottish Government has long argued that consumption rooms, which provide a safe and supervised drug-taking environment and are commonplace across Europe, are needed to help reduce the number of people dying from overdoses. The UK Government is opposed and, while it was a Commons committee that recommended the Glasgow pilot be set up, is dogged in its refusal to devolve any drug laws.
Against that backdrop, Bain was asked very specifically whether she would prosecute anyone taking drugs into the pilot room and confirmed that she would not. Despite Westminster’s position, Scottish secretary Alister Jack has promised not to interfere.
Focusing on ensuring a tiny cohort of users can take drugs in safety without also helping large numbers to stop taking them at all is going to do little to stop people dying at the rate they have been
The Lord Advocate has not given consumption rooms the green light, though – it is not within her gift to do so – and to suggest otherwise risks giving the impression that the battle to stop drug deaths has been won; it risks allowing the government to take its eye off very real issues like access to rehab that it urgently needs to fix.
Not so long ago the Scottish Government revealed a fantastic new plan that would, then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at the time, mean we could “end homelessness in Scotland once and for all”.
That plan was Housing First and, while it was and is a radical approach to helping the most vulnerable in society secure a roof over their heads, it very much has not ended homelessness in Scotland for good. In fact, homelessness has got worse, with the number of people without a home hitting an all-time high in the year to last September while child homelessness reached its highest-ever level in the 12 months to March this year.
Just as it was wrong to paint Housing First, which could only ever help a very specific segment of the homeless population, as a cure-all, so too is it wrong to assume the Lord Advocate’s statement means Scotland’s dreadful record on drug deaths will suddenly improve.
There is still a huge amount of work to be done to ensure the Glasgow pilot can get off the ground, with the legal position around how it could be done remaining opaque.
And while it is not clear where the funding for the plan would come from, either at the pilot stage or in the longer-term, focusing on ensuring a tiny cohort of users can take drugs in safety without also helping large numbers to stop taking them at all is going to do little to stop people dying at the rate they have been. Action on all fronts is what’s required but, with rehabilitation services in woefully short supply, action on no fronts is what is seemingly being delivered.
In as much as it removes one hurdle standing in the way of safe-consumption facilities, Bain’s statement is to be welcomed for sure. But painting her words as anything close to a major victory is just a distraction – and, given the rise in drug-death numbers in the first half of this year, a distraction is the last thing that’s needed.