Scotland’s drug-death crisis: Lack of cash from SNP, lack of reason from Tories – Martyn McLaughlin

Dundee Drugs Commission chairman Robert Peat stands beside a mural of Oor Wullie with his bucket over his head, painted to raise awareness of mental health and addiction issues (Picture: John Devlin)
Dundee Drugs Commission chairman Robert Peat stands beside a mural of Oor Wullie with his bucket over his head, painted to raise awareness of mental health and addiction issues (Picture: John Devlin)
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A much-needed consensus to tackle problem drug use seems further away than ever, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Problem drug use in Scotland has been allowed to fester into a scandal, thanks in no small part to the perpetual and circular row over reserved and devolved powers waged between Edinburgh and London for decades.

Drug use could be treated as a medical problem, rather than a criminal one (Picture: Sean Bell)

Drug use could be treated as a medical problem, rather than a criminal one (Picture: Sean Bell)

Even in our current febrile political climate, with a general election looming and debate raging over Scotland’s constitutional future, that cannot go on. But it will.

The public health emergency is now so grave (the clue, really, is in the word, ‘emergency’) that it would be an abdication of responsibility by both governments if the newly published report by the Scottish Affairs Committee does not spur sweeping change.

The focus on its publication has largely fallen on the call to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use, and understandably so. It is a keenly contested issue and the committee’s recommendations are evidence-based and rooted in good practice.

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But the most powerful arguments are set out elsewhere, in particular the contention that addressing the fundamental causes of problem drug use requires “radical, whole-system change”, rather than piecemeal reform.

The report adds: “Both the UK and Scottish governments must work together to implement an integrated, cross-departmental, and cross-government approach to drugs, which fully utilises the potential impact of joined-up policing, justice, employment, welfare, housing, physical and mental health policies and services.”

Stern criticism

It is refreshing to hear MPs echo what so many others working in frontline services have been saying for years. A positive first step would be for both governments to accept that the void created by their divergent approaches – one frames the problem as a criminal justice matter, the other views it through the prism of health – is having demonstrably catastrophic consequences.

We may be well versed with the ignominious statistics surrounding this issue, but we can never be too humbled by their repetition. This is especially true of the 1,187 drug-related deaths recorded in Scotland last year. Those working in Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs) across the country indicate the number will climb even higher this year.

Refreshingly, the committee’s report is no exculpatory work. It reserves stern criticism for both governments. It is integral these are acknowledged and engaged with if progress is to be made.

For Nicola Sturgeon’s administration, there is a relatively clear pathway to make amends for past shortcomings. In short, as is so often the case, it boils down to money.

ADPs, which provide vital frontline services around the country, have endured successive real terms cuts to their budgets in recent years, with funding shrinking by 6.3 per cent between 2014/15 and 2018/19. This was done despite clear and grave warnings of what would happen. Granted, the SNP announced an additional £20m per year in 2018, but it has been argued that this merely took services just past their original funding levels.

A life-saving facility, closed

Going forward, it is essential that the Scottish Government sets out a long-term financial commitment to Scotland’s 31 ADPs. Save for an additional £20m announced in September – funds that will be distributed among a wide range of services over the next two years – the early signs are not promising. Barely hours after the committee’s report was released on Monday, Ms Sturgeon refused to commit to providing more funding for drugs treatment programmes in the next Scottish budget, arguing that a delay to the Westminster budget meant the amount of money in the block grant to Scotland was unclear.

Be that as it may, we are talking about a budget measured in tens of billions of pounds. Signalling an increase in the financing of ADPs would hardly impact on the government’s wish for prudence.

It is also has questions to answer about how a lack of statutory funding is leading to crucial residential rehabilitation services closing their doors.

In Ms Sturgeon’s constituency, the Mungo Foundation charity’s Cothrom Eile centre has helped countless people with a history of drug dependency and homelessness.

Sadly, it was wound up last month after 12 years. Many former service users were among those who paid one last visit before it closed for good. Several said that without the facility, they would be dead.

Money is the main factor with which to address such issues. But the metamorphosis that is being asked of the UK Government – which controls the levers over taxation and welfare, the real game changers when it comes to wealth redistribution – is an altogether more formidable challenge.

It requires not just resources, but an ideological U-turn from a Home Office that seems to revel in being wilfully blind to reason. It cannot on one hand express “concern” about the rate of drug deaths, as a spokesman did on Monday, while insisting it has only an “open mind” to future policies, as minister Kit Malthouse told the committee last month.

The subtext is transparent; as long as so-called “philosophical problems” – Mr Malthouse’s words, not mine – define the UK Government’s opposition to drug consumption rooms, evidence-based approaches will struggle to achieve parity, let alone precedence.

In the meantime, the death toll will continue to rise. It cannot go on. But it will.