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Experimenting with drugs

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Eddie Barnes

Eddie Barnes is the Director of Our Scottish Future

This article was originally published on 28th July 2022

There are lots of people in Scotland who know what they’re doing. The Scottish government need to give them money and get out of the way.

There is a bitter irony about the failure of drug policy in Scotland.

A social crisis that has its roots in users deciding to experiment has been exacerbated and worsened by a governing system that too often views experimentation as a mortal threat.

That’s even when, as with drugs policy, the results of our failure to innovate and try something different to the status quo are set out in the hundreds of excess deaths of people in Scotland, which amount to the worst figures on drug deaths anywhere in Europe.

Today’s figures on drug related deaths from the National Records of Scotland show that 1,330 people died from drug related causes, the second highest total on record and just a 1% drop on the previous year.

Scotland’s record remains the worst in Europe and more than three and half times higher per head of population than the UK as a whole.

What remains frustrating is that while policy may be shifting in the right direction, the pace of change remains incredibly slow.

If there was a motto that could be placed under Scottish public services it would be: “It’s always been done this way”. When we’re faced with a crisis like this one, it is shameful.

To recap, drug-related deaths in Scotland have been rising steeply for the last decade. After a period in which they fell, alcohol related deaths also rose markedly in 2020.

Over the same time, funding for Alcohol and Drug partnerships in Scotland was cut – only returning to 2015 levels by April 2021.

Nicola Sturgeon has now admitted the government “took its eye off the ball”. An extra £250m of funding has been promised.

But what impact is it having?

In the spring, Audit Scotland set out its verdict on the effectiveness of all this government spending. Its verdict was essentially ‘who knows?’ As Audit Scotland concluded, it is “difficult to track” what this money is actually doing.

Then two weeks ago, the Scottish Drugs Death Taskforce – set up to propose a new direction on policy – had its say. Final Report | Drug Deaths Taskforce

It concluded that the level of funding for treatment and recovery is “woefully inadequate for this level of public health emergency”.

As for the ‘national mission’ to reduce drug deaths, the Taskforce echoed Audit Scotland by noting that “we found it challenging to understand the National Mission programme as a whole and to develop a clear picture of what practical steps are being taken on the ground.”

Now it’s been reported that the Drugs Minister Angela Constance is now lobbying internally for more cash.

And a decade after the drug death problem has become a major issue in Scotland, and three years since Scotland became the epicentre for this social disaster, the taskforce is calling for the Scottish Government to publish “a detailed evaluation plan” because, as it stands, they don’t know whether services are really working or not.

It’s hard to disagree with Annemarie Ward, the chief executive of FAVOR UK, a charity which represents the recovery community in Scotland, that this is “a farce.”

Most experts now say that the Scottish Government is on the right track. The shift to a “public health” approach is widely supported. There is a policy consensus emerging.

But where is the implementation?

Access to expensive treatment and recovery services for people continues to be scandalously poor.

It simply isn’t good enough.

If the authorities still don’t or can’t say where money is going, or what effect it is having, perhaps it is time to try something new.

Try giving all the funds directly to charities in Scotland which deliver treatment and recovery, so that people who want to begin a journey to a life free from drugs can at least start out on the right track.

Use the extra funding to employ people from the recovery community who can help their friends and neighbours.

Rather than feeding officialdom’s failed attempts to manage drug use, empower communities blighted by drugs, and show drug users that a way out is possible and desirable.

Experiment a little – because, if Scotland’s drug death scandal is showing us anything, it’s that the status quo isn’t working.


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