Scotland drug deaths: Addicts are made to 'jump through hoops' before accessing rehab

A recovering drug addict from Edinburgh says the “hurdles and barriers” put in front of people seeking help is making Scotland’s drug deaths crisis worse, with addicts unable to access rehab despite empty beds available.

James Sutherland, 39, from Edinburgh, is now 89 days sober after suffering a relapse caused by lockdown. However, Sutherland’s latest journey to sobriety started two years ago, when he first reached out for help to kick his crack cocaine habit.

“Getting a rehab bed is hard,” he said. “The expectations they set, the hoops you have to jump through, such as waiting lists and appointment times, makes it so hard.

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“While you’re waiting for all that, it’s an absolute nightmare to try and stay clean within that time, because you get hope and then it just gets taken from you again. The social services department assesses you, before sending you to LEAP (Lothians and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme), but they make you jump through all kind of hoops before that.

James Sutherland, 39, a recovering drug addict from Edinburgh
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“They make you do things like fill out a drug diary, so every time you’re using drugs they expect you to go and get a bit of paper, write down what you’re taking, when you’re taking it and who you’re taking it with. Believe me when I tell you, when you’re taking drugs, you have no interest in doing that at all.”

One in ten people who seek out support have to wait more than three weeks in Scotland, but in NHS Lothian’s area, it is one in five. “Within that three weeks, you could be doing well,” said Sutherland. “But circumstances happen and you might end up using again. You might end up missing appointments and then be off the waiting list again.”

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After waiting for weeks, Sutherland was put up in a hostel on Randolph Crescent, in the New Town, but eventually managed to secure a place at Calderglen House, a rehab facility near Glasgow. The experience in rehab was not pleasant, but the 30 days he spent there allowed him time to distance himself from drugs.

“There were lots of empty beds, they were looking for funding all of the time, trying to get the beds filled so they could secure funding,” Sutherland said. “Sue Webber [the Conservative Lothian Region MSP] took this on and I think they’ve managed to get more of the beds filled.”

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James Sutherland, 39, in the throes of his addiction

Webber said of Sutherland’s case: “We should not be putting barriers in the way for those seeking access to rehabilitation and recovery programmes. We should be doing everything to make this as seamless and simple as possible.

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“When those trapped in addiction recognise in themselves that they need help, it is an extremely critical time. We must help them access treatment promptly and without judgement. This will save lives.

“A life of addiction is chaotic, and making these people follow rigid protocols that only serve the service providers’ flow charts and tick boxes helps no one. It adds complexity and delays, when rapid support and action is needed.

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“The Scottish Conservatives have tabled a Right to Recovery Bill. It will genuinely put the individual at the heart of access to recovery programmes and give them the right to access rehabilitation services”

The Scottish Government has pledged to treble the number of publicly funded residential rehabilitation placements to 1,000 by 2026, and recently announced LEAP would be adding eight residential rehabilitation places and four detox places, bringing the total number to 28 and 12 respectively.

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Sutherland said: “If someone was needing to come out of society, the first place I’d say they should go is LEAP. When I first got clean, it was through LEAP, nearly nine years ago, and I was clean for seven years because of them. It’s an amazing organisation, the staff are amazing, they’ve got great therapists and they’ve got great aftercare.

“The problem is you’re having to be assessed by social workers who haven’t got a clue about addiction. You basically have to qualify yourself as an addict to a social worker. I don’t think anybody would lie about being a heroin or a crack cocaine addict.”

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A total of 1,330 people lost their lives to drug misuse in Scotland last year – the second highest on record.

Addiction isn’t treated on par with other medical issues, according to Sutherland. “If someone turns up to hospital with broken bones, they’re admitted and treated for as long as needed,” he said.

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“But if someone comes in, having overdosed on drugs, they are revived and basically sent back out into the community still suffering from a disease. If you ask to go to rehab, and they have empty beds, why won’t they send you? That’s why drug deaths are so high – because of the process they have to go through to get into rehab.”

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