Scotland's drug deaths tragedy is an indictment of how country is run – Brian Wilson

The response to our status as drug-death capital of Europe has become a metaphor for the way Scotland is run, the principal tools being denial, procrastination, press releases, consultations and taskforces.

The Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce calls for a major big cultural shift to tackle the harms associated with drug use
The Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce calls for a major big cultural shift to tackle the harms associated with drug use

Meanwhile, what changes? Not a lot, except years roll by and the tragedy deepens. It directly affects a small minority which means marginalising it carries little political threat – until the specific social ill is linked to the wider failure of government it reflects.

There is little in the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce’s report which could not have been acted on a decade ago but that was still deep in the denial stage. Owning up to such a problem did not accord with the relentless drive to promote a national self-image which is in so many respects at odds with reality.

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In a competent government, a distinctive problem within its jurisdiction is acknowledged and addressed. The only shame lies in evasion of responsibility while it gets worse. Yet, as this death toll rose to five times the rate for the rest of the UK, responses remained desultory and funding “woefully inadequate”.

How can it be that in 2022 it is possible for the taskforce to report: “Fragmentation across policy areas in the Scottish Government is apparent, with little join-up between work on drugs policy and key policy partners such as mental health, justice, housing, poverty and inequality. Consideration should be given to establishing a Cabinet subcommittee to drive change across the Scottish Government.”

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Scotland Drugs Death: Cultural change needed to tackle drug deaths crisis in Sco...

Ponder these words, “consideration should be given”, to a mechanism which will “join-up between work on drugs policy and key policy partners…” Did it really need a taskforce meeting for three years to recognise such a basic deficiency in face of what it rightly describes as a “public health emergency”? Apparently so.

Also consider this: “In 2020, people in the most deprived areas in Scotland were 18 times more likely to die of a drug-related death than those in the least deprived. This rate has almost doubled in 20 years, from around ten times more likely in the early 2000s.”

As on many fronts, the disadvantage gap is widening. We see it in our schools and on our streets. The resources and devolved powers over key policy areas – education, health, housing, council services, the criminal justice system – have been pathetically under-utilised and the symptoms reflect that.

The taskforce report has not had a very favourable response from those working in the field and the debate around its conclusions will continue. What must emerge is a firm policy and willingness to put resources behind it, ready for the long haul – which it certainly will be if the broader context of widening social disadvantage is not also tackled.

As the report states, “a big cultural shift is required in Scotland to tackle the harms associated with drug use. Change takes time, but it can be delivered…” It calls for a “broad culture change from stigma, discrimination and punishment towards care, compassion and human rights” with “families and people with lived experience at the heart of the development and delivery of services”. Unambiguous acceptance of these principles would be a decent start.

In my list of “principal tools” utilised by the Scottish Government, I might have included “diversion”. Since drug deaths became a political embarrassment, the favoured technique from ministers has been to give disproportionate prominence to drug-consumption rooms, on the useful basis that they are a matter for the UK Government.

The taskforce supports their introduction as “a treatment option” rather than a “silver bullet”. I have never understood why the Home Office has not taken the same approach and treated Scotland as a pilot for the UK as a whole. That is one of the ways devolution should work, by learning from each other.

To say “you can’t do something because it isn’t devolved” walks into a trap. More importantly, it denies “a treatment option” to poor souls at the sharp end of this crisis who, for whatever reasons, are more numerous in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK or Europe.

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