Why women's rights campaigners are set to take on SNP government over drug deaths – Susan Dalgety

Amid soaring drug deaths, the focus on ‘harm reduction’ – the use of methadone and drug consumption rooms – rather than rehab and recovery is a mistake

This weekend, more than 40 women of all ages and from a range of backgrounds will gather in Peebles for a weekend of pampering. Nothing unusual about that you might think – women up and down the country will be enjoying each other’s company today as they do every weekend to indulge in facials, massages and mani-peds, a welcome escape from the stresses of everyday life.

But the women revelling in free hairstyling sessions or sharing a hot-tub after a long walk in the Borders countryside have another reason to come together. Each one of them is recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, some both. Some have been substance-free for several decades, others only a few weeks, but they all share one thing – they are in recovery.

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“Lifelong friendships will be formed,” says Annemarie Ward, chief executive of Favor UK, the charity that has organised the weekend session. “You know what it is like when women get together, magic happens,” she laughs. Annemarie also knows what it is like to be in recovery.

‘Harm reduction’ not working

As a young woman, she was addicted to alcohol and used crack cocaine and heroin regularly, until in 1997 she went with a friend to an AA meeting. “I’ve recovered from addiction – I have no addictive behaviours in my life any more, but I’m still healing,” she said in a 2022 interview with Holyrood magazine. Instead, she focuses her considerable energies and boundless charisma on trying to get Scotland’s political class to change their approach to addiction, from harm reduction to recovery.

“Harm reduction may be ‘progressive’ – but it is not working,” she insists. The evidence bears out her argument. Figures released this week show that Scotland’s drug deaths, already the highest in Europe, went up by 10 per cent last year. Two people a week die in our capital from drugs. Six people a week in Glasgow. In 2023, 1,197 Scots died from the impact of drugs. Fathers. Sons. Brothers. Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. All dead because of a failure of public policy.

Harm reduction, favoured by government ministers and national drug agencies alike, is described as being “grounded in justice and human rights”. The advocacy group Harm Reduction International defines it as, “working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that people stop using drugs as a precondition of support".

It is harm reduction that led to the widespread therapeutic use of methadone, a major contributory factor in Scotland’s drugs deaths. It is harm reduction that prompted the Scottish Government to invest £7 million in the UK’s first drug consumption room which will open in Glasgow later this year.

And, Annemarie Ward argues, the majority of funding goes into harm reduction. “Harm reduction is the only game in town,” she says. “But without a balance of investment in services that provide actual treatment for dependency, we are stuck in a never-ending cycle of addiction.” She blames what she calls ‘the shadow state’, the plethora of government-funded agencies and NGOs that drive drugs policy and deliver addiction services, for this focus.

Normalising addiction

Organisations like the Scottish Drugs Forum have inadvertently become part of the very problem they were meant to address, she says. “They shape society’s perception of addiction, often minimising the possibility of complete recovery in favour of symptom and behaviour management, for example through prescribing methadone. This risks normalising addiction as a seemingly permanent condition, rather than one that can be effectively addressed through recovery.”

Earlier this week, Annemarie Ward joined a group of women in the Scottish Parliament to discuss safeguarding women’s sex-based rights. Organised by the Women’s Rights Network Scotland and hosted by Conservative MSP Tess White, women discussed a range of topics, from NHS England’s ban on puberty blockers to the need for single-sex spaces for survivors of sexual violence. Annemarie Ward told the meeting – which also included several MSPs from Scottish Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives - how current drugs policy is failing women.

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“The surge in drugs deaths is even more pronounced among women,” she says, “And the numbers might still be underestimated given the tendency of coroners to investigate unnatural deaths in women less frequently than in men.” She highlighted a damning statistic from England that shows that far more drug-related deaths among women (31 per cent) were deemed ‘intentional’, compared to men at 17 per cent. “Scotland will be the same, if not higher. Yet this disparity is poorly understood and seldom explored," she says.

‘Casualties of their incompetence’

And she pointed out that women tend to progress more quickly from initial drug use to dependency, a process known as telescoping. “Alarmingly, girls aged 11 to 15 are more likely to consume alcohol or try cigarettes than boys, and they match boys in drug use, indicating a rapid and problematic relationship with these substances,” she says. Yet only a few weeks ago, one of the few residential rehab services for women, Turning Point 218 in Glasgow, closed its doors for lack of funding. Annemarie Ward struggles to accept the First Minister’s claim that his government is doing all it can to end the crisis.

In a statement read out by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar at First Minister’s Questions, she said: “How dare they feed us these blatant lies, expecting us to nod along, while our communities are ravaged and our streets are lined with the casualties of their incompetence.”

But Annemarie Ward is optimistic, pointing to the growing grassroots women’s movement that campaigned successfully against the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, and is now turning its attention to other issues, such as the impact of the hate crime legislation, set to come into force on April Fool’s Day, and drug addiction among women. “As I said before, something happens when women get together,” she smiles, as she gets ready to go to Peebles. “The ‘shadow state’ may have the ear of government ministers, but women have each other.”



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