Drugs policy must be rethought

IN MAY of this year, four-year-old Olivia Donachie was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Her mother was badly injured and had to have her leg amputated. Yesterday, the driver, Daniel Jackson, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide and failing to stop after an accident.

This was not just another example of criminally bad driving on Scottish roads. Jackson is a drug addict who, in the run-up to the crash had taken a cocktail of drugs including Valium, heroin and methadone. His four-wheel-drive vehicle was riddled with mechanical defects that he had failed to get mended and the brake pedal had completely ceased to work. Before Jackson ran into Olivia, he was driving on the wrong side of the road.

This is a modern Scottish morality tale of a known drug addict with the resources to own a heavy SUV, but living too chaotic and selfish a lifestyle to even get it repaired. Of a system that allowed him the right to drive on Scottish roads - a right he abused to the point of killing a small child. It is a perfect example of the reason why we cannot sweep the drug issue under the political carpet. Nor can our response be simply to contain drug abuse by hard-core users into some policy ghetto. For if we do, each and every one of us risks becoming another Olivia Donachie.

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This is not to over-dramatise the problem with Scotland's 50,000 serious addicts. Rather it is a quiet plea to reconsider our approach to the question. There is a growing consensus among Scotland's politicians that an anti-drugs policy based solely on arresting dealers and keeping registered addicts on methadone is not working. The drug abuse problem will not go away as long as there is a demand for the drugs. We must shift to a programme of intensive rehabilitation of addicts, coupled with early intervention in schools and families to alert children to the danger of drug abuse. We must cease allowing Scottish prisons to be virtual drug supermarkets and ensure that prisoners are put through rehab programmes as a matter of course.

Of course, such a policy shift will be expensive. But a strategy designed to cure the problem (at least substantially) is cheaper in the long run than one which assumes that we will have 50,000 hard-drug addicts and their dealers forever.

As part of such a therapy programme, we need to revisit the law concerning driving and taking drugs. Simply banning drug addicts from driving is no guarantee they will not get in a car illegally. But it is worth considering linking the holding of a driver's licence to mandatory completion of a rehabilitation course. That might not eliminate another incident such as the sad death of little Olivia Donachie. But it is a good way of ensuring she did not die in vain.