The drug death toll is truly horrific – 1,187 lives lost and no sign of the carnage abating anytime soon. For sure, the individuals lost were often hard to empathise with even, if there’s always widespread sympathy for their families.
Challenged and challenging people, they could be a nuisance in their community, if not worse, and were always a heartache to their family.
But they were all someone’s son or daughter, someone’s mother or father and didn’t set out that way. No one intends to become an addict and, for most, death was a long time coming, not the consequence of a night’s foolhardiness. Their lives not just their deaths but a waste of human potential.
Of course, we’ve been here before though not as stark, every year seeming to bring worsening figures. When privy to the briefings as Justice Secretary, the explanation given was that they were the “Trainspotting Generation” – those who’d been indulging in the lifestyle depicted in the movie, their bodies riddled by abuse, and unable to cope with even minor ailments. The assumption was that once they’d died off the figures would improve.
But they haven’t. The problem’s got deeper and wider than just them. The largest group of fatalities was the 442 aged between 35 to 44, far exceeding the 345 aged 45-54. The book was published in 1993, but the setting was late 1980s Edinburgh and it’s moved on from them.
At that time, the drug of choice was heroin and other opioids, as those drugs had flooded into 1980s housing schemes as jobs and hope flowed out. Tackling that was seen as the key and innovative education schemes and needle exchanges were brought in.
But now it’s been added to by cocaine, street valium and other substances the names not just the ingredients of which are often new and beyond my recognition. It’s new drugs and a new generation and the old ways are failing.
There’s no simple solution as the real problem is demand, not supply. Why do people take drugs? It’s not the glamour of snorting cocaine in a ritzy nightclub for these sad souls. Their habit has been fed in backstreets or drug dens – as miserable for them as for their families watching their slow demise.
But the response of the political class has been woeful – the Tories doubling down on their law-and-order calls and refusing even moderate and sensible suggestions for drug consumption rooms (DCRs). No one anywhere wishes to have these things but they’re required, reducing deaths and helping rehabilitation. And they are found not just in liberal Scandinavia but in centre-right Germany.
The hypocrisy of Tory leaders lamenting their youthful indiscretions but denouncing others is as vomit inducing as some of the repulsive scenes from the now cult movie, The Riot Club. Rich white kids rarely get stopped and searched and if they do some plea can usually successfully be made. But it rarely works that way for poor kids who are left to pay the price with no way back.
But the position of the Scottish Government is also inadequate. Calling for action or powers to be devolved to implement drug consumption rooms is welcome. But as the problem has moved beyond the Trainspotting Generation, so must the solutions. Consumption rooms are only a small part of how to address a huge problem and, alone, would be a woefully insufficient response. Yet drugs are an issue that Nicola Sturgeon has run from and where she appears happy that the problem rests with Westminster. Creating an independent nation means having charge of the economic levers and the social controls that are necessary. Full fiscal powers and immigration laws have been demanded and rightly so.
But it also means taking responsibility for tackling the social ills that afflict our land and the demons that prey on our people.
Nobody else is doing this to us, we’re doing it to ourselves and no one else can solve it but us. It requires more than just legislative powers but they’re an essential start. Seeking them not just those over DCRs would show a real intention to tackle what’s rightly called a national emergency.
Portugal has been mentioned favourably for its liberal and humane drug regime.
But replicating Portugal means having the powers of Portugal. Are the Scottish Government up for that?
It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, and new laws are only part of what’s a huge social problem based on hopelessness and despair. Portugal has improved the situation but not eradicated a drug problem.
But it’s up to us, we can and must do better than this.