Dr Neil McKeganey, the director of the Centre for Drugs Misuse Research, told Scotland on Sunday that drugs were “overtaking” Scotland and that he did not understand why ministers were failing to treat the issue as seriously as they do harmful drinking.
Given the current scale of the country’s drug problem, including the increase in the use of so-called legal highs, McKeganey said the government had to take “a long hard look at what we are doing and have the courage to do things differently”.
His comments come a week after the death of 17-year-old Regane MacColl who is believed to have taken tainted ecstasy tablets, and follows a spate of deaths throughout Scotland last summer as a result of fake ecstasy pills. Though drugs legislation is reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government has control over its approach to tackling the problem.
“It is absolutely heart-breaking that we are seeing these young people whose lives are being extinguished at the youngest of age. They go from teenagers with every potential in front of them, to corpses on a mortuary slab, but that is the reality of the drug problem,” McKeganey said.
“It is staggering to me that we don’t seem to be able to tackle it given the force and commitment that other topics in Scotland receive. There’s no question that we have a massive alcohol problem in Scotland, but I don’t know why the Scottish Government can’t address our illegal drug problem with the same courage and conviction that it is tackling our alcohol one.”
The Scottish Government published a drugs strategy in 2008, called “The Road to Recovery”, and the Drugs Strategy Delivery Commission was established the following year to deliver it.
McKeganey highlighted the findings of a highly critical Audit Scotland report on Drugs and Alcohol Services in 2009, which estimated that 1.8 per cent of the population misused drugs – double the level in England. It also showed that drug-related deaths in Scotland were the highest in the UK and among the highest in Europe.
“I think we’re being overtaken by a drug problem,” said McKeganey. “Our focus is on class A drugs, but even within that it remains primarily focused on heroin and cocaine, and I think our response is not commensurate with the development of legal highs or the rebirth of widespread ecstasy use.
“Our seizures are falling short, our prevention campaigns are falling short. I think they are inadequate. I believe that, as these deaths occur, simply raising the risks that these drugs pose is inadequate as a response.”
Calling for a “co-ordinated and continuous drug prevention programme at a national level”, McKeganey said that Scotland had become accustomed to “a drug problem the scale of which is unseen anywhere in Europe”. He warned that the problem was not receiving the attention it needed.
There are an estimated 60,000 problem drug users in Scotland. A 2012 European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction survey showed that the country was top in Europe for illegal substance use, with almost one in ten Scots admitting to using ecstasy – more than double the rate in most other countries.
Scotland was also shown to have the greatest proportion of LSD users and the third highest cocaine problem.
Last night, Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) director David Liddell defended the current strategy stating that McKeganey was simply criticising without putting forward a concrete plan for improvement. Addressing the issue of policy being too focused on heroin, he said that, of the 60,000 users, the majority were on heroin or similar substances: “That remains the massive problem and the one we need to put considerable resources into, and where the key focus of the strategy lies.”
He said that the SDF and government was now looking at the quality of service as part of the next phase of the Road to Recovery strategy.
“There is a lot going on to try and improve that response, and I would strongly argue that is a major plank of the response and should remain so.”
Liddell also said national prevention campaigns had been shown not to be effective. “There’s very little evidence of their ability to change behaviour, and in fact there is some suggestion from American research that some of them can have a boomerang effect and lead to increased use,” he said.
He said that sometimes governments pursued such campaigns “to be seen to be doing something. I would think in terms of the scale of the problem and the issues that we face, that is potentially quite superficial.”
He said that the SDF was more interested in moving from a medical model to a social model, improving employment, education and training opportunities giving people a hope and aspiration so that they could “leave their drug problem behind” and make a real difference to their lives.
Responding, to McKeganey’s comments, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are determined to do all that we can within available legislation to tackle the damaging impact of drugs in Scotland. This week, parliament backed plans by the Community Safety Minister to work with our partners in Scotland and the UK government to combat the supply and use of new drugs.”
She added: “We have maintained record amounts of money in frontline drug services and support, with drug treatment waiting times dramatically reduced.
“We have an ambitious programme for substance misuse education, including Know the Score and Choices for Life, which supports the health and wellbeing outcomes of the Curriculum for Excellence. Drug taking use among young people is at its lowest levels since 2002.”
Calum Murray, Director of Adult Care Services for CrossReach: ‘We need more robust policies’
THE problem of illegal drug use in Scotland and how best to address it invariably polarises views between those who favour harder legal enforcement against those who want it treated as an essentially societal-health problem.
We are losing the battle against drugs, and we need some more robust policy initiatives to deal with the problem.
We do recognise that the Scottish Government has made strenuous efforts to address what has been a long-standing issue, one which is proving to be less amenable to policy initiatives than was initially thought. I understand where Neil McKeganey’s coming from and I respect his position, and I would certainly support the view that more needs to be done in both a care sense and a legal sense, though my emphasis would be from a care perspective.
Finance has been lacking in some areas, particularly residential rehabilitation which, by our own evidence, proves to be a better return on investment than the current methadone programme, which is well-intentioned, but is abused by many to “top up” their pre-existing habit. We believe that is an inefficient use of taxpayer’s money and more should be invested on promoting abstinence rather than methadone maintenance.
However, we are in the hands of commissioners, the local authorities and the drug and alcohol partnerships, to carry out government policy, and we do our best swimming against that tide.
That said, I think that the Scottish Government’s drive towards the integration of health and social care is a step in the right direction and should see better use made of necessarily limited resources in pursuit of the goal of managing and, in due course, reducing Scotland’s problem with drugs.
On the issue of so-called “legal highs”, we recognise them as a growing problem – particularly with some premises selling them openly on Scottish high streets. We condemn these strongly as they “normalise” the selling of these substances which have potential to do real harm.
But ultimately, alcohol is a much larger problem in Scotland than drugs, but drugs tend to get the headlines. We recognise that drugs policy addresses those that are illegal, but it is great concern that it is actually a legal drug that both harms and kills the most.
CrossReach, as a provider of both residential rehabilitation and community-based support for people with drug and alcohol problems across the country, takes a pragmatic approach to the Scottish Government’s policy.
As a service-provider, we work with Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs) to address what is regrettably a growing problem, but we are only scratching the surface.
• CrossReach is the Church of Scotland’s social outreach wing