We need a culture of care, not a war on drugs

“Drug deaths are like the canary in the mine for the impact of poverty.” Maggie Chapman, Scottish Greens lead candidate for North East Scotland details Dundee’s public health issue with drug deaths and how Scotland is going about handling it.

Dundee bridge
Maggie Chapman

Scotland has followed many other jurisdictions in pursuing a war on drugs. The war on drugs approach focuses on the criminalisation of users and petty suppliers, rather than seeking a solution to the deeper problems that underpin drug abuse. The “war on drugs”  has totally failed, both in restricting use of drugs and in protecting from the harms of drugs.  

Drug deaths are like the canary in the mine for the impact of poverty. We know that the places where drug deaths are highest are the places that most suffer from poverty. We need to deal with drug deaths, but also with the underlying causes of drug abuse. Scotland has been scarred by poverty over the past 50 years, and so it has some of the worst drug death figures in Europe: about eight times the average. The lives scarred by drugs are, of course, concentrated in particular places. Dundee’s drug death rate — 0.23 per 1,000 people — is almost double the national average. 

We know that the right response to drug deaths is to approach it as a public health issue. And if we do that effectively we will also address some of the other deep-seated problems that have surfaced during the Covid pandemic.  

Unfortunately, we have a Westminster Government with significant powers over drug policy that sees drugs as an issue to be dealt with through the criminal justice system. We now have over 40 years of evidence demonstrating this approach will fail. One curiosity of the devolution settlement is that while laws relating to drugs are Westminster’s responsibility, enforcement of those laws is up to the Scottish Government.  

That is why Scottish Greens have been asking the Lord Advocate to use his powers to ensure that safe drug consumption facilities be exempted from legal action. Already professionals in places like Glasgow are taking the lead on providing these vital facilities. But they are doing so at risk of prosecution. Our Justice spokesperson John Finnie has specifically written to ask for the Scottish Government to be allowed to make full use of its powers to protect people who are protecting the public. We have also been arguing for a care-based approach to public policy that would ensure that drug users get the social and medical support they need.  

Dundee City Council has responded to the situation with a commission to seek solutions to the problem of drug deaths. This commission has made a set of really strong suggestions about how to deal with drugs at a civic level. They include seeing the problem as a whole system and seeking whole person solutions, increasing accessibility of mental health services and taking an approach based on kindness, compassion, and hope. 

But while this is moving in the right direction the key questions of how services will be funded, and whether we can make the shift from a criminal justice focus to a social focus remain unanswered. 

The Scottish Government has begun to recognise the value of community-based solutions, but we need a whole system approach to this, which cuts across the artificial divide between Westminster and Scottish Government powers. We need to learn from countries like Portugal where decriminalisation has led to fewer deaths as a result of drugs, and fewer wider societal problems like organised crime. Taking such an approach would change how we see drugs and begin to move from the war on drugs to a care-based approach that reduces the enormous harm caused by drugs.