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Choose Life: Urgent Policy Responses to Tackle Scotland's Drug Deaths Emergency

Scotland's facing the highest number of drug deaths since records began in 1996 - with a staggering 27% increase in 2018. With statistics showing Scotland to be the "drug death capital of the world", calls for the decriminalisation and/or devolution of drug laws have intensified. However, we need to act - this event will look at what we can do now to minimise drug deaths. 

The Context

In 1997, drug-related deaths were just 224.  Fast-forward to 2019 and we now have 60,000 problem users in Scotland and a death rate eight times higher than the rest of the EU. 

The ‘War on Drugs’ ordained by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the criminal justice approach consistently taken by the UK Government) was deemed to have failed primarily because it reinforces the social stigma associated with drug use and disincentivizes people from seeking help for their problems. In light of this, Scottish Government called for the Home Office to decriminalise the possession of drugs, more conducive to a health-based approach to the problem; and if they were not willing to do this, then they ought to devolve the powers to Scotland so that the Scottish Government may pursue such a policy approach.

There have been numerous responses offered – the Scottish Government has set up a Drugs Deaths Taskforce, chaired by Professor Catriona Matheson, and the UK Government has pledged to convene a UK-wide Drugs Death Summit in Glasgow. 

However, the people overdosing in Scotland do not have the luxury of waiting for the political cog to turn. This policy event will focus on what can be done in Scotland now – without or prior to the devolution of powers – to stem the tide of consistently increasing drug-related deaths.

We will examine the merits of Police Scotland operating under a policy of de-facto decriminalisation, which the Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire Service, Kit Malthouse MP, indicated he was relaxed about – not least because there are some examples of excellent practice of this in police forces across the UK.  Given Police Scotland already make limited use of Recorded Police Warnings, we will also analyse how this might be implemented in practice.

Attendees will also consider the Scottish Government’s Rights, Respect and Recovery Action Plan 2019 – 2021, focusing particularly on the prevention and early intervention and reducing stigma aspects of this.

Finally, we will turn our attention to what collaboration can be furthered and deepened across public sector in Scotland to tackle the deep-rooted issues and improve the life chances and the quality of life of users and their families that can be done without necessarily devolving drug laws to Scotland.

Key Issues We’ll Address With You

  • Context – why are drug-related deaths so high in the UK and what are the strategic policy options to tackle the root causes of this?
  • Discussion of merits and de-merits of de facto decriminalisation - is non-statutory decriminalisation, heavily reliant on the judicial system, enough to reduce stigma and have meaningful impact?
  • Extension of Recorded Police Warnings over incarceration and other policy variants
  • Developing an early-intervention, preventative nexus targeted at children at-risk of ACES
  • Widening and deepening cross-agency collaboration to tackle drug deaths without the pooling capacity of SCFs
  • Housing, welfare and poverty-relief solutions and mental/primary care interventions to stem the tide of drug-related deaths

Confirmed Speakers

  • Professor Catriona Matheson, Chair, Drug Deaths Task Force, Scottish Government & Professor in Substance Use, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling


09:30 Registration and Refreshments

10:25 Welcome and Introduction from the Chair

10:30 Session 1: Context

Professor Catriona Matheson, Chair, Drug Deaths Task Force, Scottish Government & Professor in Substance Use, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Senior Representative, Pressure Group


11:10 Questions and Discussion

11:30 Interactive Session

This peer-to-peer learning exercise will allow delegates to interact, discuss problems and issues they have came across in their own professional (and personal) backgrounds; offer solutions in an open forum and generate further discussion for use at the designated Question and Discussion sessions throughout the remainder of the day.

12:00 Refreshments and Networking

12:20 Session 2: Implementing De-facto Decriminalisation

A criminal justice approach to drug use perpetuates social stigma of it. It marginalises users, which in-turn makes it harder to come forward for treatment.  While wholesale decriminalisation requires the acquiescence of the UK Government, there are policy options available to the Scottish Government and Police Scotland on drugs legislation, not unlike other diversion schemes ran by other police forces to progressive effect within the UK.  Some have opined that we already have Recorded Police Warnings (RPWs) for being caught in possession of cannabis and this should simply be extended to other drugs.  Others have argued that we ought to have a diversion scheme offering people the opportunity of entering a treatment.

  • Discussion as to the effectiveness of this as a policy objective in reducing stigma in turn to encourage problem drug users to come forward to seek help in the short-term
  • Policy options and variants of this – what is the would-be Scottish solution? Examples of best practice securing the buy-in and co-operation of the stakeholders involved in the operational running of this

13:50  Session 3: Familial Social Stigma and ACES: Early Intervention to Prevent the Next Wave of Drug Death Tragedies  

In the recently-published Rights, Respect and Recovery Action Plan, the Scottish Government has pledged to “establish an expert group to develop a programme of work to address the stigma experienced by all people affected by problem…drug use including family members,” to commence in 2020. Given that evidence suggests that adults who experienced 4 or more ACEs were 11 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin, that the majority of drug users have experienced an ACE, and that drug use is 17 times more likely in Scotland’s poorest areas compared to its richest, preventative policy such as this is imperative if we are to prevent the seeds of another 30 year crisis being sown by the austerity policies pursued by the UK Government since 2010, as they were throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Senior Representative, Pressure Group

14:15 Session 4: Facilitating interface between health, social care and justice system

One of the arguments for a Safe Consumption Facility (SCF) in Glasgow is that in places where such facilities exist, for example in British Columbia, is that they can be a gateway to other services such as primary care, psychiatrists, psychologists, councillors, welfare and housing officers. The Scottish Government also claims that in order to maximise such cross-agency collaboration, drug laws should be devolved. However, in the absence of the desired legal framework, there is still collaboration which can be widened and deepened.

Senior Representative, Primary Care

Senior Representative, Health Service

Senior Representative, Social Care

Senior Representative, Prisons

14:55  Questions and Discussion

15:20  Closing Remarks from Chair

15:30 Close of Event

Please note that the agenda is subject to change

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If you have an inspiring case study or a project that you think is relevant, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We are always on the lookout for new speakers. 

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Society & Welfare

31 Mar 2020
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