Just a few weeks ago, I was reading the news story about the death of Grace Handling, a 13-year-old girl from Paisley who died after taking an ecstasy tablet.
The story was so familiar I thought it was a repeat of an old one . It wasn’t, it was the same story but with a new child victim, the latest in a tragic line of Scotland’s teenagers killed by MDMA or Ecstasy.
It’s always the same narrative, teenager at a club or party is given or buys tablets and, not knowing what they are, swallows them. Collapse and death follow, usually from overheating or heart failure. Grief-stricken parents duly appear on television pleading for help to stop the slaughter, desperately trying to escape their nightmare and salvage some small positive from their heartbreak – which they never can.
But another thought struck me as I looked at the press picture of Grace’s last selfie, a bonny wee girl trying to look cool – she could have been one of mine. As her headteacher said in an emotional piece to camera: “If it can happen to Grace it can happen to anyone.” And that’s the nub of it, it can happen to anyone – and it does. Standing back I tried to imagine Grace taking that tablet and popping it in her mouth. Did she not know that Ecstasy is stronger than it’s ever been, that it’s different every time you take it, that it’s made in different ways with different recipes by different people none of whom know you or care if you live or die?
We call drugs like Ecstasy soft, party or recreational drugs; they are anything but. Looking at young Grace, an obviously bright wee girl, I’m sure she did not know any of these things. If our role as elders is to give our young people the knowledge they need to make good choices then we failed Grace. We teach our kids to cross the road but not to survive Ecstasy.
In the great scheme of drug deaths in Scotland, 934 last year, Ecstasy hardly merits a mention. ‘National disgrace’ is a title we apply too readily, to our football team and income tax but as a description of our drug deaths, the highest per capita in Western Europe it’s a badge of dishonour that’s richly deserved. If deaths be an indicator it’s hard not to conclude that our drug policy has failed badly. And, hands up, I had a part in that failure; some years ago I led Edinburgh’s Alcohol and Drug Action Team and before that spent years in drug enforcement. There are many great people working in the field but progress has been slow.
Illegal drugs is multinational business with hundreds of illegal substances in a trade worth half a trillion dollars annually. The supply is secure. So we must make a better job of tackling demand. And that means our drug policy wonks and their political masters must get real with their prevention and information messages. We must be brave and brutally honest about the effects of so-called soft drugs even to the extent of practical advice to young people who despite our advice still decide to take them. They should know that it’s safer to take a quarter or half tab first – see how it goes, to drink plenty water and to stick with friends.
It’s a very tough moral line to cross, but cross it we must if we are to stop this slaughter. And there is hope. With a combination of legislation and tough messaging, Scotland has succeeded in reducing drink driving, smoking and even alcohol consumption – it can be done. And if you are reading this safe in the delusion that it’s nothing to do with you, have a look at the last picture of young Grace Handling, smiling out from beyond the grave – she could be one of yours.