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Paul Sweeney: Drug deaths 'merely a symptom' of communities in decline

Parnie Street was one of the places the pilot drug consumption van served | Photography by David N Anderson

Paul Sweeney: Drug deaths 'merely a symptom' of communities in decline

Paul Sweeney knows better than most about the life-saving impact of Naloxone. In between his time as an MP and MSP, he volunteered with the unofficial overdose prevention centre in Glasgow run by drugs campaigner Peter Krykant – a former heroin user himself – out the back of an old ambulance, bought using crowdfunded cash.

“We observed several hundred people attend over the course of the pilot,” Sweeney says. “There were nine instances of overdose involving eight individuals – one person was affected twice. I’ve seen it happen. This was someone who, if they had been in that alleyway alone, would have died.

“We were able to immediately act and administer Naloxone, the antidote for an opiate overdose, and save their life. There’s no starker moment of realisation that this is effective than walking away from something like that, and realising that your actions, as a collective group, did make a difference to saving eight people’s lives.”

But for Sweeney, access to Naloxone was only a minor part of the operation. More important, he says, was providing a place that those struggling with addiction could go – not necessarily for treatment, just a place to be. “Having that initial ability to treat someone with respect and dignity and give them a cup of tea and have a conversation, that was the most important side of it to me, it was actually just that opportunity to engage with someone, to understand what was going on.”

Sometimes the team gave practical help – like the time they got a man’s wheelchair fixed – and other times it was more pastoral support. One story that has stayed with him was of a young woman who had been sexually abused in care. “Because of what had happened to her in care, she was so suspicious of going to any official services and was living in a tent in an alleyway in Glasgow and basically using heroin as a form of anaesthetic against life.

“The worry was coming back the next day and someone casually saying she had overdosed and died overnight. And that could have happened easily. That was the fear of walking away. But happily, now she’s in a place where she’s actually in rehabilitation. She wrote a really nice letter to Peter, just saying ‘thanks for saving my life, you were the first person who treated me like a human being’.”

Stories like this have fuelled Sweeney’s determination to see overdose prevention sites opened across Scotland – and he’s now working on a members bill to do just that. But it’s tricky. While the Scottish Government has backed them for a number of years, the UK Government retains power over drugs law – and the Home Office is against the move.

Sweeney, though, says there is nothing in the Misuse of Drugs Act to prevent consumption rooms being set up – but he acknowledges his bill is “working right at the frontier of what is reserved and devolved”. “We don’t want to have a constitutional showdown. It’s not about that, it’s not about all of that nonsense, because that’s been going on for far too long, a Home Office vs Scottish Government standoff, which is absolutely obnoxious to me when we’re losing someone every six hours to preventable drug-related deaths. This is something that could make a meaningful difference.”

The initial consultation on his proposal received an overwhelmingly positive response. The question now, therefore, is the how. “The best thing that the [Scottish] government could do is adopt it and take it forward. I’m not here to try and take plaudits for something. It’s not about me. It’s about seeing what I saw on those streets… working with Peter Krykant on Parnie Street and the Trongate, that’s what it’s about for me.

“It’s about actually doing something to address people who are deeply marginalised, people who were otherwise terrified of accessing services, were scared of being judged, just realising that the system currently sets tests that people are doomed to fail, that creates barriers to entry, makes a judgmental assessment of people, and also makes it really hard to disengage and reengage or doesn’t meet people where they’re at. Fundamentally, that’s the challenge we’ve got.”

While the issue of drugs is something he’s passionate about now, it’s not something that was always on his radar.  It was only after he became the MP for Glasgow North East in 2017 and the issue was quite literally on his doorstep that he started to grasp the true scale of the problem. “I started to have a dawn of realisation about this stuff when I set up my constituency office, which was on Saracen Street in Possilpark, which is kind of the epicentre of a lot of Scotland’s drug-related problems in many ways, both from an organised crime perspective and from a consumption perspective. I think it was just a notch between the eyes really, when you see that drug dealing happening outside your constituency office door.”

The worry was coming  back the next day and someone casually saying she overdosed and died overnight

While drug-related deaths have only been grabbing headlines and hitting record figures in recent years, Sweeney says it is “merely a symptom of a disease” that has long been in the offing. He puts the start of the problem at the “deindustrialisation” of Glasgow in the 80s. Thinking of Possilpark, he says: “It was a community that was hollowed out – deep despair, lack of agency, lack of purchasing power, what’s left in the economy is cornered by organised crime. And then you have huge health implications, huge addiction problems, mental health crisis, which is self-medicated largely by the community. And the so-called deep-end GP practices, which are doing an admirable job, can only do so much.

“That was what I swiftly realised was the heart of the problem in Scotland. In that moment, it becomes a dawning realisation that so much of what we’re doing is wrong, the nature of criminalising people who have actually got a deep trauma that they’re trying to treat themselves.”

He adds: “This [bill] is trying to stem the haemorrhaging of death. But I’m not oblivious to the fact that there’s deep structural reform needed, which is something that I don’t think the government, despite a change in leadership, has even begun to grasp.”

Sweeney describes his time as an MP as a “fairly unique experience”. “It was one hell of an apprenticeship, just because of how frenzied it was around Brexit. There was all these knife-edge votes and all these late-night sittings. It was so highly charged, and clearly eventually exploded into the snap election of 2019, which produced the Tory majority.

“My experience of it all was it’s not actually as tribal as it seems. There is a desire amongst most people in politics, parliamentary politics, to try and do good by their communities – if that doesn’t sound too twee or facetious.

“There’s also a lot of absolute grifters and sociopaths. Power attracts those kind of characters, and I have seen at close quarters extremely horrendous behaviour and experienced horrendous behaviour.

“But by and large, we’re trying to do good and achieve positive outcomes, even when we disagree on how we do that. It was frustrating in the sense that being in opposition is frustrating. You’re a glorified spectator – though there were opportunities to upset things when things were so closely balanced.”

This frustration continues into his MSP role – and not just in terms of policy differences, but with the wider structures of government too. “I think some ministers – whether it’s the drug crisis, whether it’s things like the ferries – there maybe is a willingness to try and find the solution, but whether ministers have that wherewithal to actually make the machine turn in the way it needs to, to address it, is a question that I really have an increasing concern about.”

He wonders whether it’s even possible make “big, rapid and comprehensive changes” which are needed to fix these structural issues. And he suggests this is the reason much of the public are “frustrated and feel let down”. “We are reaching a culmination point with this government, that it is out of ideas, they’re out of steam, you can feel a palpable sense of exhaustion across government, even though there’s a change in leadership, it doesn’t feel like there’s a renewal. It feels like a pale imitation of what went before. I just don’t sense that there’s a deep intellectual analysis about the nature of the problems we face as a country and a programme that’s anywhere near ambitious or credible enough to address them.”

But he does sense a “huge opportunity” for Labour – particularly since the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon and everything that has followed.

Labour at UK level has been feeling optimistic for some time, but he believes that people in Scotland are now ready to talk about issues beyond the Yes/No divide that has split the country for nearly a decade. That creates an opportunity for Scottish Labour “that hasn’t existed for us for at least a decade”.

“A lot of political experiences in my generation have been bent around the prism of the 2014 referendum. Just seeing how charged that was in a community like the north of Glasgow, almost a revolutionary fervour around voting Yes, voting to change the system, voting to pull the lever and explode the status quo, if you like. There was no stake in the status quo for a lot of people, that was part of it.

“It was a huge rebellion against an economic and social order that was not serving the needs of the people. I think that was true of Brexit for a lot of communities in England and Wales as well… I think we’ve been so distracted by those disputes that we haven’t actually recognised some of the more fundamental long-term problems that our economy is getting poorer every year, it’s getting more unequal every year, and people are feeling a deep alienation from it because of that.”

“It’s easy to say, right, flip the light switch and change the constitutional arrangements, and that will change everything – you’ll feel much better and everything you ever wanted will come true. I think it’s a cruel deceit,” he adds.

Sweeney was one of the casualties of a general election so dominated by Brexit. He lost his seat in 2019 – which then kickstarted a “weird period of limbo” for him as the pandemic began and he found it difficult to find a permanent job. He briefly worked on Angela Rayner’s deputy leadership campaign and also with an asylum seeker charity, though that role was wound up after three months due to funding cuts.

I felt bitter about that, to be honest with you, because I felt I didn’t deserve that outcome from the effort I’d put in

“Losing my seat was really upsetting, obviously. I felt like I’d given up everything else in my life to really give it everything I could, from 2017 to 2019. It came at significant personal cost to me. I barely saw my family, lost relationships out of it because I was so focused on it. I basically lived like a monk, between Westminster and Glasgow. It was a great privilege as well… It was a huge opportunity, a once in a lifetime chance to really do this job that I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d get. And I really wanted to give every ounce of effort, and then realised, despite all that, I didn’t hold the seat. I felt…”

Sweeney pauses here to collect his thoughts before continuing. “I felt bitter about that, to be honest with you, because I felt I didn’t deserve that outcome from the effort I’d put in. There was that self-indulgent feeling that it wasn’t fair.

“And then there’s a recognition that actually you’re powerless in the face of events nationally, because most people will vote according to party loyalty or a political leader or a political position – Brexit, for example. You’re very rarely able to influence the outcome of that.

“I think, I can’t remember if it was John Curtice that said this, but if you’re a good MP or a good MSP, you can maybe influence the outcome by about three per cent either way. I took some solace in the fact that even though the swing in Glasgow against Labour was something like six per cent, mine was only three per cent. I felt like I pushed back on the giant pendulum as much as I could, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid falling off the cliff.”

He looks back at the period after December 2019 and recalls the “crushing loneliness of sitting in the house by yourself”. “I had nothing to do, I was relying on a swiftly diminishing bank account, into the overdraft, recognising there’s nothing else for it but to sign on to Universal Credit. I applied for jobs, but as soon as you’re an ex-MP… there’s nothing more ex than being an ex-MP.”

But a little over year after losing his Westminster seat, he was elected to Holyrood having been placed third on Labour’s Glasgow list.

Despite representing Glasgow in two parliaments, it was never really his intention to get so involved in politics – and indeed he doesn’t think he’d have been selected to run if the circumstances of 2017 hadn’t been what they were.

Sweeney worked as an engineer in shipbuilding after graduating, and then at Scottish Enterprise supporting engineering businesses. His family were “Labour-sympathetic” and he “emotionally rooted” for the party as a kid, he says, so when he came across the Glasgow University Labour Club stall at his freshers’ fair he signed up. But he didn’t really get much involved until a few years later. He got a call from Sarah Brown – wife of Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time – asking him to campaign in the 2009 by-election for the seat his would one day hold himself.

Even then, he stuck to occasional leafleting for the local branch. Then the independence referendum created what he describes as a “centrifugal effect” that “supercharged” anyone who had a vague interest in politics. “I went from being just a guy who would go out and put leaflets out every so often, to actually ending up on the platform speaking with Gordon Brown and Eddie Izzard and Johann Lamont at the eve-of-poll rally.”

And so when the call went out for people to put forward their names for 2017, he “chucked in an application”. He describes being essentially assigned to the seat and told he had no chance. Then he got elected.

Despite the surprise turn in his career, he takes great pleasure in representing the city he calls home. The walls of the office he shares with the three other Glasgow Labour MSPs, including leader Anas Sarwar, are adorned with old photographs celebrating the city’s heritage, most of which are his. He hopes that by the end of his time in parliamentary politics, whenever that may be, he’ll be able to point to change he helped bring about.

“I want to see us have communities that have purpose, have dignity, have wealth being generated within them… There’s only five and a half million of us in Scotland, it serves us all well to make sure that all of us have the best shot at actually fulfilling our potential.”

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