Putting people first is the way to tackle scourge of drugs
ACCORDING to the General Registrar for Scotland, drugs deaths in 2006 totalled 421 which is the highest number since 2002 when the total was 382. These figures mask the tragedy surrounding each death and the pain felt by family and friends as well as the waste of potential of each deceased.
What can be done to reduce or even stop the tragedy and the waste? Nobody seems to know! Certainly not those who are currently advising the Scottish Government on strategy and tactics for dealing with the problems drugs bring to individuals and communities across the country. If they did, then today we would not have seen the increase of 39 in deaths from drug use in the previous peak year nor would we have to treat in excess of 50,000 of opiate addicts each year.
That we have so many drug users should not be a surprise when the alternatives to taking drugs are put under the microscope and the level of investment in young people is studied, because, after all, it is young people who are most likely to take up drugs although their health, domestic and legal situations are not usually compromised until later in life.
Since 1996 many of the local authorities around Scotland shut down the Community Education Services which previously had invested significant amounts of time and money in providing young people with activities to undertake during their leisure time. While not the complete answer, these activities deflected many young people away from taking drugs during the 80s and 90s.
Investing in young people aside, what happened to Scotland's drug strategy? In March 1999 to a great media fanfare the Scottish Office launched its Drug Strategy, "Tackling Drugs in Scotland: Action in Partnership." For the first few years the "Drugs Ministers" embraced their remit with commendable enthusiasm and significant financial support but in the years preceding the last election the Executive appeared to change direction. For example, Scotland led the world with its "Effective Interventions Unit" which collected and disseminated good practice in dealing with drugs from many countries yet it was closed down.
What can be done to minimise the impact of drugs on our communities and thereby reduce the number of deaths and the numbers of addicts requiring treatment?
Scotland needs a Drug Strategy! A new one - for the 21st century - which is not bogged down in debate about legalisation and decriminalisation, the prescription of heroin, injecting rooms and all the other issues which in the recent past have generated more heat than light. A strategy which puts people, not substances, first and which has a research programme showing: why people take drugs, why they keep taking them and why do they carry on doing it until they have compromised their health and wellbeing.
The first phase of a strategy needs to continue to provide support for those who are dependent on drugs but it should be aimed towards giving up. Treatment and rehabilitation programmes should be focussed on ultimate abstinence. There should also be a wider range of treatments in which the user can be placed after proper assessment.
Phase two targets users who are not dependent, but are using on a regular basis. Activities should have a clear theme of the potential damage which can be done by taking drugs. The real problem about targeting such a group lies in identifying who is in it.
The third phase needs to recognise the fact that the vast majority of young people do not take drugs and they should be celebrated for that fact. Young people should be provided with opportunities to participate in a wide range of activities which will deflect them from taking drugs.
While much of this is not rocket science, Scotland needs a significant departure from the current practices which, arguably, help to promote the status quo thereby guaranteeing no change!
The cost is not going to be cheap but can we continue to accept a rise in drug deaths and in the tragedies which drugs bring?
• Dr Alistair W Ramsay MBE, is Chairman of Drugwise Limited and former director of Scotland Against Drugs
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