Alex Cole-Hamilton: It is time for Scottish Government to kickstart a new era of drugs policy radicalism

Days after the release of tragic drug deaths statistics, Scottish Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton has written an open letter setting out a series of radical proposals to tackle the ongoing epidemic of drugs deaths.

Statistics released on Friday show that 1,339 people died of drug-related deaths in 2020, an increase of 5% from 2019.

Alex is urging the Scottish Government to:

  • take radical steps with the prosecution authorities and the Lord Advocate to help establish heroin assisted treatment and safe consumption spaces.
  • establish new specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Commissions to help provide wraparound services and to take a holistic approach to those reported for drug offences, learning from best international practice such as that in Portugal.
  • Divert people caught in possession of drugs for personal use into education, treatment and recovery, ceasing imprisonment in these circumstances.
  • Adopt the principle that individuals and families shouldn’t have to pay for the care and treatment of those at risk of death from drugs or alcohol.

Alex’s open letter is long, but worth reading in full. Its radical and liberal ideas are also relevant south of the border:

It will be said many more times that Scotland is once again the drugs death capital of Europe. The compendium of statistics published on Friday morning are horrifying. But the individual stories behind each and every one of these drug deaths are, without exception, gut wrenching.

They are stories of lives cut short and potential extinguished. They are stories of opportunities lost. They are stories of families and friends grieving.

There was nothing inevitable about the loss of 1,339 lives in 2020, just as there was nothing inevitable about the thousands of lives lost before theirs. Every drug death is preventable.

It is why I could not and will never understand how the Scottish Government reached the decision in 2016 to cut the budgets of drug and alcohol partnership budgets by 22%. Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats appealed for a rethink on the afternoon that budget was rubber stamped at Parliament.

Help and expertise that people relied upon was needlessly surrendered when professionals on the frontline were already pointing towards a crushing need for service expansion. The practicalities of staffing and service planning means that reinstating budgets a couple of years down the line simply doesn’t recoup what is lost.

At the moment of that budget cut, record numbers of drug-related deaths had occurred two years in a row. 2020 represented the seventh year in a row.

In 2017, Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary for seven years and at the time of the independence referendum, wrote: “…silence may have been understandable when the referendum was ongoing, now it’s simply cowardly as tragedy unfolds”.

It was an admittance that his party chose to look away for fear it would be a distraction.

These were conscious decisions taken at the very heart of government. They were decisions that flew in the face of the evidence that existed at the time about how to spare pain and suffering.

Those circumstances mean I find the First Minister’s apologies and comments – such as the government didn’t do enough, the eye wasn’t on the ball or that the current situation is a national disgrace – hard to accept.

But I was determined to offer solutions when I first stepped into Parliament five years ago, for the sake of those gripped by drug misuse and the families who have lost so much already and the families they left behind. I’m more determined than ever to see them adopted now.

Earlier this year, and at the second attempt, we secured parliamentary support for the principle of decriminalisation. In June, Parliament then backed my request for the new Lord Advocate to get to work on this. I asked that she report back at the end of the summer because I believe guidance can be strengthened and that the principles and practicalities around diverting people from the justice system into treatment and education need to be pored over like never before. Imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use must cease.

It is time for Scottish Government to kickstart a new era of drugs policy radicalism. It is time to take radical steps with the prosecution authorities and the Lord Advocate to help establish heroin assisted treatment and safe consumption spaces.

We want to see new specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Commissions to help provide wraparound services and to take a holistic approach to those reported for drug offences, learning from best international practice such as that in Portugal.

Getting treatment can mean families and individuals facing astronomical bills. It is time to adopt the principle that there shouldn’t be a price tag for interventions that can save lives and the care and treatment of those at risk of death from drugs or alcohol.

We need a new era of drug policy radicalism to finally turn the corner in the fight to save lives and ensure that people are helped and treated with compassion. We owe this to everyone who is currently struggling, to those who didn’t make it and to their families.

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15 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 2nd Aug '21 - 7:11pm

    It is a pity that Alex Cole-Hamilton has chosen to ignore the fact drug laws have been reserved to Westminster – he should have been bold and called for those powers to be devolved so that the Scottish Parliament could make the legislative changes that are needed. By choosing to deliberately ignore this issue, he opens himself to the charge of mere opportunism rather than sincerely trying to address all aspects of the problems and the potential solutions. If Alex’s failure to call for those additional powers to be transferred to Scotland is because he is afraid to weaken his Unionist credentials by calling for increased powers, then it is doubly sad that he is willing to compromise his response to the drugs deaths crisis to fit his Unionist agenda. Pity…I had hoped for better.

  • John Marriott 2nd Aug '21 - 10:27pm

    Addiction to drugs is an illness. It should not be treated as a crime. The current method of tackling the problem has been an abject failure. We need to decriminalise not legalise drug abuse. Addicts need treatment not punishment. There is a big difference. What was wrong with the system before we joined Nixon’s ‘war on drugs? Then we had registered addicts, for example, and the approach, while not perfect, was far more balanced. It really is time we admitted we have got it wrong since 1971. Any attempt to gain political should be resisted.

  • All good stuff – I can’t disagree with any of it. It would be fantastic if politicians could put aside tribal bickering and posturing and got on with the stuff they can get on with.

    Brad, once again you fall into the trap of repeating the propaganda of SNP supporters who treat Scotland’s drugs shame as just another excuse to stoke division. Yes, we’d like to change drug legislation at Westminster too, but there are many practical things that can be done using existing powers in Scotland. Some of which are already being done in England. As an opposition MSP, it’s right to challenge the Scottish Government on how they use, or fail to use, the powers available to them.

    The drug death crisis is a public health crisis. Health is fully devolved in Scotland. It’s also got firm links to poverty, poor housing and challenging in education and social care. All of these things are devolved. Policing is also devolved, and it would be very easy for the First Minister to work with the Lord Advocate to instruct the police not to arrest people for possession of drugs. If they do still want to arrest drug users, they could redirect them to rehabilitation services instead of the courts. The Crown Office should be clear that they agree with many legal experts that those like services like the van run by Peter Krykant should not be prosecuted. But to do so would be to admit that they have that power.

    Then of course there are things like taking a different approach to the prescription of restricted drugs, including giving addicts proper support if they want to pursue an abstinence approach, not just sticking them on methadone for years on end with no further support. There’s a whole string of treatment decisions that are entirely within the power of the Scottish NHS that need to be reviewed. Not to mention proper funding so it’s done properly.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Aug '21 - 2:57pm

    Those figures really are shocking, they seem to mean that Scots have a 1 in 50 chance of dying (prematurely) through Drugs – thats just mind-boggling.

    I am so glad that we are shouting about this.

  • Brad Barrows 3rd Aug '21 - 3:40pm

    @Hi Paul
    Sorry to correct your statistical conclusion but the fact that 1 in 50 deaths in Scotland in 2020 was drug related does not mean that Scots have a 1 in 50 chance of dying prematurely through drugs. You are mixing conditional probability. (The 1 in 50 is the chance of a Scot who actually died in 2020 ALSO dying of drugs.) To try to explain, think of this: the number of Scots with problem drug use is around 1% of the population. Therefore, 99% of Scots have no chance of dying from drugs. If we then compare the number of drug deaths each year to the number of problem drug users, we find that around 1 in 40 of those people (Scots who have a problem drug habit) are likely to die in any given year. Therefore, the risk of dying from drug use for the average Scot (including those with zero risk due to not using drugs) is actually around 1 in 4000

  • Brad Barrows 3rd Aug '21 - 3:43pm

    Above comment should have ended ‘1 in 4000 per year’.

  • @fiona

    “Policing is also devolved, and it would be very easy for the First Minister to work with the Lord Advocate to instruct the police not to arrest people for possession of drugs. If they do still want to arrest drug users, they could redirect them to rehabilitation services instead of the courts. ”

    From Scotland Legal News:

    ‘In 2017-18 there were 32,399 recorded drug offences, 84 per cent of which were for possession. Of these, 19 per cent reached court, compared with 29 per cent in England and Wales.

    Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC recently told the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee: “In relation to offences of simple possession, I have, through the recorded police warnings scheme and prosecution policy, supported the use of alternatives to prosecution, including diversion.”

    Prosecutors tend instead to go after people who profit from drugs.

    There were 5,228 recorded crimes related to the drugs trade including supply, importing and cultivation and 5,390 convictions, implying only a fraction of people are convicted for possession alone.

    Three per cent of those convicted of drug offences are jailed, most are fined or given a verbal warning or community service.’

    The Crown Office informed Peter Krykant at the start of the year that they would not take court action against him.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Aug '21 - 4:44pm

    Several years ago, in Bath I saw a drug user openly injecting. In some social housing there has been issue’s with drug misuse and selling.
    Accepted now as part of society. Unless, there is a wish to control the drug problems in someway. Most of the homeless have a dependency on either drugs or alcohol.
    Of course, society is far from perfect, but it could be improved by education and more support.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Aug '21 - 6:58pm

    @ Brad Barrows
    1 in 4,000 Per Year is the same thing as a 1 in 50 chance of dying altogether.

    That 1% problem Drug user figure sounds as if it excludes Alchohol or its just wrong, its sounds very low to me.

  • @Hireton. I’m glad you agree that there are powers within Scotland to do more to prevent the criminalisation of drug users. The statement to Peter was weak, especially after pressuring him to accept a caution, then leaving him waiting for so long to admit they didn’t need to prosecute. But saying they’d decided against proceeding with that prosecution is not the same as telling him that they don’t ever intend to prosecute him, and there’s no need to prosecute anyone providing the service he’s been providing, which is what campaigners are requesting.

    Scotland has the highest prison population in Western Europe and according to something I read a couple of weeks ago, 75% of those in prison have a drug problem. With a bit of political will, we could reduce the over-crowding of our prisons and redirect many of them to treatment. Of course treatment doesn’t always work, but prison almost never does. And it’s not as if it’s cheap to keep people in prison.

  • Brad Barrows 3rd Aug '21 - 9:30pm

    @Paul Barker
    Prevalence of Problem Drug Use in Scotland 2015/16 estimates, published 5th March, 2019, gives a mid range estimate of 57,300 which is 1.62% of the 15-64 age group. Scotland’s population is currently 5.5 million, hence the 1% approximation.

  • I agree with John Marriott when he says, “Addiction to drugs is an illness. It should not be treated as a crime. The current method of tackling the problem has been an abject failure”.

    This applies to England as well as Scotland where the latest ONS Figures reveal matters to be comparatively worse in the North East of England than in Scotland. There were 332 such recorded deaths in 2019 and 389 in 2020.

    Maybe Alex Cole-Hamilton should write to Mr.Johnson as well as to Ms Sturgeon.

    Source ONS, 4 August, 2021, The Northern Echo newspaper.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Aug '21 - 12:00pm

    The best policy that can be adopted is legalise, standardise and tax. This would put drug use on a par with tobacco and alcohol and would, at a stroke, wipe out the drug dealers’ markets and with it the ‘glamour’ that goes with doing something illegal.
    The current ‘war on drugs’ is an abject failure and will never succeed, because the profits to be made from selling illegal drugs is astronomical. Only by sweeping away the illegal market will we ‘beat’ the pushers by destroying their source of income.
    Now, Alex, advocating that sort of policy really would be radical!

  • John Marriott 5th Aug '21 - 9:24pm

    @Mick Taylor
    I agree with your assessment of where we are. I disagree with only one thing: not ‘legalise’ but ‘decriminalise’. There’s a big difference. Injecting, swallowing or snorting narcotics is NOT good for you. In an ideal world you should not be doing it. Making it legal would indicate that taking drugs is OK. Neither is necking gallons of booze a good idea either; but we appear to accept that it’s part of the so called ‘night time economy’. That said, those who have acquired any kind of drugs habit and those with what I call an ‘addictive personality’ in general, need to be viewed as victims who need treatment, not criminals who deserve punishment.

    The 18th Amendment of the US Constitution sought to prohibit the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol for honourable reasons but we all know that the draconian measures introduced spawned criminality on a massive scale, which is exactly what happened after we in the U.K. sought to support Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ by passing the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

    As I wrote earlier, before the 1971 Act drove a coach and horses through pragmatism, we had ‘registered addicts’, who could function by receiving a clean supply via the NHS. I see no difference between an the diabetic receiving their insulin to stabilise their metabolism except that, unlike the diabetic, it might be possible to wean the drug addict off their habit. If not, at least they had a modicum of control over their lives and were not reliant on criminality to provide for their needs.

    Countries like Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Switzerland have shown the way. We should follow their example. We need to be brave and, above all, we need a different more radical approach.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Aug '21 - 1:47pm

    The need to take addictive substances is a symptom of an uncaring society. One in which every individual is valued would not have such an issue. Education is key and also many other areas such as stronger communities, availability and the culture around drug abuse. Schools is where we should start. Awareness of a potential problem allows early intervention. Life chances need improving for those at risk.

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