Reflections on my first year as Drugs Policy spokesperson

It’s been a year since Alex Cole-Hamilton appointed me  Scottish Lib Dem  spokesperson for Drugs Policy. This is a new portfolio shadowing the Minister for Drugs Policy Angela Constance in response to an increasing trend of drug-related deaths in Scotland that has made us the Overdose Capital of Europe.

Since my appointment I have sought to learn, make connections and speak to people most affected by substance misuse while putting forward common sense proposals such as accelerating the rollout of Naloxone (overdose prevention kits), introducing supervised consumption centres, and calling for widespread drug law reform at the UK level. Here’s one TV interview with GB News where I put forward such proposals:

My primary focus  is reducing overdoses and drug-related deaths.  My first job involved travelling to Holyrood to attend a vigil  for Overdose Awareness Day.

I spoke to people who have lived with addictions and families who have lost loved ones to overdose. I even had the honour of meeting Peter Krykant, a former addict who took action into his own hands to start up Scotland’s first ever mobile overdose prevention centre in the back of a van. After being shown around the back of Peter’s old ambulance which  he’s modified into a mobile safe consumption centre, and upon hearing about all the lives he had saved, I was struck by the power of direct action, and how often it’s ordinary people taking matters in to their own hands who achieve far more than Government Ministers ever can.

More recently I met with the Chair of the Scottish Drug Deaths Task Force, David Strang, to discuss its recently released final report. This is an incredibly detailed report containing 20 overarching recommendations and 139 action points.

These include Liberal Democrat calls for supervised consumption facilities and for UK Drug Laws to either be reformed or devolved. Whilst these are important recommendations, none of them are new. Campaigners have been calling for these measures for a number of years and my worry is that these renewed recommendations will be ignored by our Governments; both the Scottish Government who are all too willing to shift responsibility to Westminster for things that are completely within their own power, and the UK Government that has subscribed to a failed ‘War on Drugs’ for over 50 years without any sign of budging.

Another focus for me is medical cannabis. Despite being legal in the UK for 4 years now, medical cannabis is still far too inaccessible for those who need it. Despite the fact there are an estimated 1.4 million people in the UK using cannabis for medical reasons, only approximately 11,000 of these people have a legal prescription.

I have been sitting on the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group for Medicinal Cannabis, taking evidence from experts and exploring the barriers that still exist for patients accessing this important medicine. One of the issues that has come up is that in some areas, the Police still do not have the proper education and awareness around medical cannabis. This can result in legitimate and legal prescriptions being confiscated and legal action threatened, as was the case with one legal patient in Shetland. I have been working closely with an organisation called Cancard, who, in collaboration with Police, provide identification to medical cannabis users to prevent these situations happening.. This work in ongoing and the next meeting of the Cross Party Group will be at the end of September.

I’m keen to learn from the people working on the front lines to reduce the harms associated with drugs so at the end of August, I travelled down to Newcastle to volunteer with PsyCare UK at the Noughty Nineties Festival as a psychedelic first aider.

PsyCare currently operate at festivals across England and Wales, providing support for people undergoing challenging drug-related psychological experiences. As well as providing education to reduce the harm of psychoactive substances, our tent provided a safe and quiet haven for those who were having uncomfortable drug related experiences and needed a safe place to get through it.

We also gave out free water, sanitary products and contraceptives at our stall while giving out non-judgemental and honest harm reduction advice to anyone who came to speak with us.

Harm reduction initiatives such as this can be controversial. Many people see them as enabling drug use when we should be discouraging it. We all know that the safest thing is not to use drugs, we also know that drug use is prevalent at festivals. What struck me about volunteering with PsyCare was that punters felt safe to talk about the drugs that they were using without fearing repercussion and because of this, potentially dangerous situations were averted simply through that exchange of knowledge.

The PsyCare team consisted of  psychiatrists, chemists and psychotherapists, each of them oozing with knowledge and compassion. It’s my firm belief that if every festival offered welfare and harm reduction services like Psycare on their premises, many lives would be saved and tragedies such as the recent death of a young man at the Leeds Festival, would be averted. While Psycare UK only currently operate in England and Wales, it’s my firm belief that no Scottish festival should go without such services.

This year has taught me that despite the death and despair we currently face, we can take inspiration from the good and hard-working people with bright ideas trying to make change.

Over the next year I hope to keep campaigning for supervised consumption centres, for safer festivals and drug checking services, and importantly, decriminalisation and an end to prison sentences for minor possession offences.

Over half a century of a war on drugs has not made anyone safer. It’s time for a new approach.

* Ben Lawrie is Drugs Policy spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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  • Chris Platts 6th Sep '22 - 1:32pm

    I agree with his approach,drug addiction is a health and social issue and not a criminal one. Better access to health and support services are essential to ensure that drug users are able to receive proper care.

  • This is all good stuff Ben and you should be commended. I think we should be more ambitious.

    While I do not think Drugs is a top three flagship policy area to campaign on (NHS, economy/cost of living, environment), something I would have in the manifesto:

    Legalise and regulate recreational drugs. Use all the proceeds to minimise the harms of addiction and drug abuse by increasing funding to police, health and social services.

    Crux of the matter: would this create more drug addicts and increase the misery and cost on their families and communities?

    My belief is it would not. Drugs are so widely available already that people at risk of addiction and abuse are already exposed, with all the additional draw backs of illicit supply has to the individual and society. Overall, it is worth carefully trialing this approach to establish the truth.

    Legalisation would allow much better targeting and funding of what is fundamentally a public health issue of abuse and addiction, rather than a criminal issue of possession, consumption and supply.

    In terms of crime, legalisation would massively reduce if not completely remove a major source of criminal income and activity, which has its own myriad of negatives repercussions at home and abroad. At the same time as reducing the burden on the police of tackling illicit supply. Net result: A reduction in crime, while freeing up police capacity to focus elsewhere.

    And from a liberal standpoint: it decriminalises the large number of recreational users and maximises their freedom to make their own choices.

  • You are doing great work Ben.

    The key phrase in all of this is ‘harm reduction’, and it’s a concept we need to push. Too many are stuck with the idea that we can eliminate harm if only we are tougher on drugs. Being realistic about the impossibility of eliminating harm does not mean that we are OK with harm, or that we haven’t noticed that some people’s lives are seriously adversely impacted by them. What it means is that we respect that they can be very harmful, so we want to be serious about reducing that harm as far as reasonably possible.

    An angle worth highlighting is that when problem drug users have the option of a safe consumption room, and use that safe consumption room is that it can be the start of building a relationship of trust so they know there are people who care and who want the best for them. They are more likely to find out about possible treatment and learn about how it could help them and trust that the people involved care about them.

  • Will McLean 7th Sep '22 - 1:28am

    Well done Ben glad to see you’re throwing your weight behind this. Agree with Freddie’s comment I do reckon there is probably scope to be much bolder on this. I think Conservatives (and to an extent Labour) hardline approach is becoming increasingly removed what most people actually think. And you make a good point that the SNP have put it in the too hard don’t try basket.

    In the north east it doesn’t help that the Press and Journal fills its pages demonising the latest twenty something’s court case of selling cannabis. I guess that reflects the target demographic of its readership more than anything else.

    To steal Boris’s line. When the herd moves, it moves. Public opinion is shifting.

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