Scotland’s drug deaths are a public health issue

“Criminalisation has too often led to a pervasive callousness towards people struggling with addiction. That can’t go unchallenged or people will keep dying.” John Finnie MSP calls on the UK Government to exempt drug users from prosecution.

Glasgow port

Image by Julia Schwab from Pixabay 

John Finnie

Scotland’s drug death crisis is longstanding and well documented. The numbers of lives lost to drug-related deaths are consistently high, above comparable European averages, and remain stubborn in their refusal to come down.

Recently, the Scottish Government appears to have accepted it bears at least some of the responsibility for that. The Public Health Minister resigned, a new dedicated Drugs Policy Minister was appointed, and the First Minister set out plans to spend £250m on tackling the issue over the next five years.

This appears to be welcome progress, but we’ve been here before and there needs to be a radical departure from the mistakes of the past to address a track record of failure. However, while the Scottish Government cannot be absolved of responsibility, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that successive UK governments have failed to adequately address this issue.

The Scottish Green Party is clear that drug addiction is a public health issue and should be treated as such in line with international best practice. However, while health and most aspects of criminal justice are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, drug classification remains solely within the gift of Westminster. Holyrood therefore can’t take matters entirely into its own hands and decriminalise possession or use of any drug. Currently possession of heroin carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

That’s important because Scotland’s track record shows you can’t arrest your way out of a drug death crisis.

Addiction is better dealt with by trained medical professionals than the criminal justice system and there is a raft of international examples that prove that to be the case. Criminalisation has caused more harm than good because it puts the fear of the law into people suffering from addiction and discourages them from seeking help when they need it most.

Among public health experts and leading third-sector organisations this view is largely uncontroversial and is backed up by evidence, but conservative elements within government are hesitant to move back from the failing traditional approach.

The challenge then in Scotland is to use the power we do have to tackle the issue as effectively as possible. Recently the activist Peter Krykant, who runs a mobile supervised consumption facility, was arrested under the Misuse of Drugs Act, though the charges were later dropped. His facility in Glasgow allows people addicted to heroin to inject in a safe, clean, supervised environment, massively reducing the risk of death or infection.

There’s no doubt these facilities can play a massive role in reducing drug deaths, as they do in places like Denmark, but only if the operators and users know they’re safe from prosecution. That’s why I, along with other activists and third-sector organisations, have called on the Lord Advocate to use his public interest discretion to ensure that no health professional faces prosecution simply for providing lifesaving health interventions.

That isn’t an ideal solution. The ideal solution would be Scotland, as an independent nation, being in charge of its own affairs. Pending that inevitable day, any solution must involve fundamental legislative change at a UK level and every opportunity to remind the Conservatives, who see drug classification as a political rather than scientific matter, of that fact should be taken. Though while they remain intransigent the Scottish Greens will continue to explore and promote creative solutions available in Scotland.

A fundamental part of this process is shifting attitudes. Criminalisation has too often led to a pervasive callousness towards people struggling with addiction. That can’t go unchallenged or people will keep dying. The Scottish Government has talked a relatively good game when it comes to treating addiction as a public health issue, but the death toll shows, thus far, the action hasn’t been there to back it up.