Tuesday 3 August 2021

Sturgeon already has the power to save Scottish lives


It’s easy to respond to the latest figures about drug related deaths in Scotland by simply blaming the SNP. The Scottish Government has to take responsibility for all aspects of healthcare in Scotland because it is a devolved issue. There is no use blaming Westminster for something that you yourself control. But it is not enough to simply blame SNP mismanagement and the fact that for many years its primary focus has been to achieve independence.  It is necessary to try to understand why we got to the situation in Scotland where there are so many drug users. Governments when faced with a drug use problem can make efforts to help the situation, but no Government causes people to take drugs.

In Scotland there are more than 300 drug deaths per million people. Nowhere else in Europe comes close. More than three times as many Scots die as anyone else in Europe.

The reason given for drug usage and death is often supposed to be due to poverty, deprivation and hopelessness.

It is true that drug deaths are concentrated in the poorer parts of Scotland, but it is also too easy to simply blame poverty. Scotland had 1,339 drug deaths in 2020. Slovakia with a similar population to Scotland had 19 deaths. But average income is much higher in Scotland than Slovakia. We have more generous benefits too. There are countries in Europe and the world generally that are much worse off than Scotland with very few deaths indeed so it is too simple to ascribe drug deaths in Scotland simply to deprivation.

Independence supporters might suppose that leaving the UK would make Scotland wealthier and that this increase of wealth would solve all Scotland’s social and health problems, but it is not at all obvious how independence in itself would save even one Scottish life. After all the SNP would have no more power to deal with drug deaths if it formed the Government of an independent Scotland, because it already has complete control over healthcare at present.

If there were more jobs in the deprived areas of Scotland and if benefits were higher, it would not help those people who are already addicted and in danger of dying. More benefits might merely provide more income to buy drugs. Addicts anyway would be unable to take advantage of new job opportunities when their main concern is getting their next fix.

The reason for Scotland having a problem with drugs that is so much worse than anywhere else in Europe is cultural. In certain parts of Scotland drug use is a way of life which provides the opportunity for drug use for new users.

If I were from a small town in Slovakia where there was little work, much deprivation and loss of hope, I still might not have easy access to drugs, because there might be few other users. But if I lived in Glasgow or Dundee, it would be easy to find drugs and many of my friends and acquaintances might already be users. Where the Slovakian might turn to vodka, the Scot might turn to heroin and benzodiazepines. In the years prior to widespread drug use in Scotland, the poor and hopeless would likewise have turned to alcohol, which would have had a detrimental effect on their health, but it would probably not have killed them.

To solve the drug use problem in Scotland you need to address the fact that drug use is widespread. Drug users not only risk their own lives, they risk the lives of those who they influence to take drugs. Decreasing overall drug use is the way to decrease drug deaths.

The ideal way of preventing drug use would be to prevent drugs being imported into Scotland. We have tried to do this for decades but have failed to prevent supply because there is such high demand. Decreasing supply when there is high demand merely increases the price of drugs and makes drug dealing more profitable.

But we have also failed because we tolerate widespread drug use and allow users to live their lives freely. This means that they are continually able to form part of the drug use culture in Scotland and to influence others to become drug users.

Drug users must be treated sympathetically. The task must be first to save their lives and then to deal with their addiction. But drug use is not merely an illness that requires treatment, it is a crime that ought not to be allowed to continue without the intervention of the law. Otherwise like any other crime you just encourage lawbreaking. By tolerating illegal drug use, we have encouraged it and the death that goes with it.

At present someone who is a known drug user is often given methadone or other heroin substitutes and is then allowed back onto the street so that he can buy heroin and street Valium often funded by petty crime. Society therefore condones both the drug use and the petty crime that funds its. When you condone something don’t be surprised when you get more of it.

A better solution to addiction would be to treat it as a crime, in order that the drug user is a faced with a choice, either accept residential treatment or go to jail for class A drug use.

Residential treatment for drug users could be located in the Scottish countryside far from the supply of drugs. Drug users could initially be given the drugs they are addicted to in a controlled manner and in time be made to give them up entirely. They could be provided with counselling and work experience to give them the chance to live healthier more useful lives. Failure to follow the treatment would result in prison.

If there were no longer a large community of drug users in Scottish cities, there would be no more market and demand for the drug dealers, but more importantly young people would be less likely to come into contact with the drug users who encourage them to take up the habit.

It would of course be expensive to set up a network of residential care in Scotland, but it is neither cost free nor kind to allow drug users to continue killing themselves.

We have accepted that drug use is a lifestyle choice in Scotland that is tolerated and accepted part of life of in our cities. There are often calls to reduce the stigma associated with drug use. But if you reduce the stigma associated with something you make it more acceptable. You therefore encourage it.

Rather the task is to treat the users of illegal drugs without whom drug dealers and smugglers could not function, as law breakers and use this fact to first make them take drugs safely and secondly to cease to be addicts at all.

Billions of pounds have been given to Scotland to deal with Covid, some of that money could be used to treat those Scots with an even deadlier addiction. If we all can be compelled to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid, drug users ought to be forced to stay where they can no longer create new drug users by their example and the drug user community they form.  The goal must be to turn them into people free from addiction once more able to take a full part in society.

The SNP of course will do nothing and so next year drug deaths will most likely go up again. Meanwhile independence supporters will attempt to pretend that the figures are inflated and anyway it is not the fault of a Scottish Government that already runs healthcare and criminal justice, but spends all its time blaming someone else for everything that is wrong with Scotland. We could save the lives of drug addicts, but we prefer to tolerate their lifestyle and encourage it, because that makes us progressive. We kill them with our kindness.