Scotland’s drug death crisis: We risk walking into a minefield – Tom Wood

A picture of Michele Kearney who died aged 16 in 1999 of a drug overdose is displayed in Glasgow city centre to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (Picture: John Devlin)
A picture of Michele Kearney who died aged 16 in 1999 of a drug overdose is displayed in Glasgow city centre to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (Picture: John Devlin)
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There seems to be another head of steam building for a radical overhaul of our drugs laws. A unanimous vote at the recent SNP conference called for legislation controlling drugs to be devolved to Scotland apparently to allow for decriminalisation of possession and consumption of what are presently illegal substances.

Even allowing for the ‘them and us’ element so depressingly familiar in our political discourse today, it’s long overdue, there is little doubt that the 50-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act is well past its sell-by date, if it was ever really fit for purpose.

There is also, understandably, a strong sense that ‘something must be done’ and in the face of year-on-year rising drug death figures (1,187 last year) it’s hardly surprising.

At times like this, there is an almost irresistible urge to reach for an instant solution – that works ‘perfectly’ elsewhere, the elusive magic bullet that does not exist.

Let’s be clear. It’s high time our politicians were taking this human carnage seriously again, there has been precious little progress since ‘The Road to Recovery’ initiative was championed by Fergus Ewing over 10 years ago. Since then, local action teams have suffered severe budget cuts, losing services and impetus.

READ MORE: Scotland’s life expectancy falls as drugs deaths spiral

READ MORE: ‘Urgent action’ needed to halt increase in Scottish drugs deaths

It’s also right that we do look abroad for good practice, Portugal and elsewhere – there is much to be learned with the obvious caveat that a straight cut-and-paste job is unlikely to succeed.

But there is a more fundamental problem, the current search for new solutions, while creditable, presumes that drug misuse is in itself the problem.

How will dealers react?

The evidence however would seem to contradict this at least in part, for while drug misuse spans all stratas of our society the hot spots of harm and the body count are concentrated in our areas of deprivation – where there is poor housing and low educational attainment, where unemployment and crime is high. Perhaps drug misuse is not the problem but a symptom of deeper social issues and, if so, then decriminalising certain drugs is unlikely to be the solution.

And there’s another problem, such radical policy changes are strewn with unintended consequences. Questions arise, like – if you decriminalise certain drugs how will the dealers and criminals who profit from them react?

Take cannabis as an example: legalise and therefore remove it from the illegal market, what is likely to happen? Will dealers accept the loss of their ‘bread and butter’ commodity, perhaps seeking gainful employment to make up the shortfall or will they try to undercut the legal market with stronger cannabis products or perhaps diversify into other markets, increasing the deadly synthetic drugs on our streets. Who knows? The results will differ from place to place, drugs misuse has always followed local trends.

Whatever the consequences of a shift in drug policy there will consequences and they may be profound. That is not to advocate that we should do nothing, a new coherent policy is desperately needed, but it must be a policy based on evidence carefully thought through. There are no magic bullets or simple solutions – there may well be good practice elsewhere but there will be no complete answers. We should also remember that once decriminalised it will be almost impossible to reverse the policy, put the genie back in the bottle.

The radical reform of drug policy in Scotland is essential but beware, it is a minefield of concealed and unexploded consequences – we must tread carefully.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable.