Miles Briggs: No surrender in the war on drugs

Most drug addicts are desperate to quit but many need medical help to be able to do so (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Most drug addicts are desperate to quit but many need medical help to be able to do so (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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It’s time to get tough on drug dealers and provide effective treatment to rid people of addiction, writes Miles Briggs.

It was my colleague and former Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie who, in 2008, pushed then First Minister Alex Salmond into adopting a 10-year plan for overcoming Scotland’s battle with drugs.

She saw the path we were on, and was desperate for the Scottish Government – whatever its political colours – to use its devolved powers to make a difference. But a decade on from the SNP’s Road to Recovery, things are worse than ever north of the border.

Today’s newspapers are full of reports showing that the 934 who lost their lives to drugs in 2017 is the highest number on record. Some of those were children aged 14 and under.

Scotland’s drugs-death rate is now two-and-a-half times higher than the UK average, and significantly worse than any other EU country.

We are in the grip of a drugs crisis which is getting worse by the year.

READ MORE: ‘Staggering’ rise in drug-related deaths in Scotland

Annabel Goldie saw this coming – even if many at the time questioned why she was raising it so passionately - yet ministers in charge in Edinburgh have not responded to her warnings.

Instead, they have embarked upon soft-touch measures, lost the battle with drug-dealers through weak enforcement and sentencing, and slashed funding to the very programmes which help people beat substance abuse for good.

We now need a new drugs strategy, one that’s radical in its measures and can be implemented as a matter of urgency before these statistics get any worse.

It needs to focus on recovery, on showing vulnerable people this habit can be beaten and a productive, enjoyable life awaits at the other side when it is.

It needs to tackle drug-dealing on the streets of our towns and cities, to ensure those caught ruining these lives and communities are punished heavily, to the point where it becomes a risk not worth taking.

One of the most alarming findings from the official ‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2017’ report was that in nearly half of the 18 people a week who died last year, methadone was found to be a contributing factor.

This is a drug which is prescribed by the NHS to heroin addicts in the vague hope of getting them off drugs, but is now complicit in hundreds of deaths a year.

Nevermind that it costs the NHS tens of millions to administer, but it is killing the very people whose lives it is supposed to save.

That’s because, for years now, the approach has been to park people on this heroin substitute, with no hope of full recovery, with the faint aspiration they manage to muddle on without taking harder drugs, or committing crime to fund them.

READ MORE: Record numbers of women dying from drugs in Scotland

It’s failed miserably, and is one of just many strands of Scottish Government drugs policy which has to be rethought.

A more recent idea involved the creation of a so-called shooting gallery in Glasgow, where the NHS would lay on heroin and related paraphernalia for addicts to inject in a dedicated space, under the watchful eye of taxpayer-funded staff.

On the way out, they could be handed a leaflet about maybe thinking about getting off drugs at some point.

This understandably faced a backlash from people who don’t want it to become easier for people to inject damaging illegal substances, and certainly don’t want the hard-pressed health service to foot the bill.

Like the over-reliance on methadone, this is another example of the authorities waving the white flag in the war on drugs.

The policy completely fails to appreciate that most addicts want to stop, not for the state to help them along in their life-ruining dependence.

By the same token, last year Nicola Sturgeon announced she wanted to abolish prison sentences of less than a year, instead using community sentencing and fines. Had this been in place last year, it would have seen 562 people sentenced for under 12 months for drugs offences walk free, straight out of the court room and back into the communities where their crimes were committed.

What sort of message does that send to someone considering a career in drug-dealing, or a lifetime of committing crime to facilitate drug-taking?

We need a coming together of justice, health and education portfolios to find solutions. An unimaginative refresh of the strategy that’s abjectly failed is not good enough.

The Scottish Conservatives want to see more emphasis put on recovery programmes, for pilot projects to brought forward to investigate new and innovative treatments, and for more support for the family members and communities trying to help out vulnerable drug users.

There’s also scope to provide more assistance for those who know they have a drug problem, but are told it’s not sufficiently serious to access services.

This week we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS, and one of the real successes has been its ability to help transform the health and life-expectancy of the nation.

But in the more recent decades, there have also been failings to properly help and treat too many people in our society desperately trying to deal with drug addiction.

If there’s scope for improvement for the next 10 years, that’s exactly where it should occur.

And, as we reflect on these latest statistics showing the scourge of drug-addiction north of the border, Baroness Goldie’s words from 2008 still ring true: “It is urgent that we move from the aspiration of a new approach, as outlined in the new national drugs strategy, to real action.”

Miles Briggs is shadow Health Secretary and a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians. Regular columnist Ruth Davidson is on holiday.