Rennie: Tackle drug addiction with compassion and treatment, not imprisonment

Liberal Democrats care about people being able to fulfil their potential and getting the care and support they need to recover from illness and addiction. That’s why our Scottish manifesto highlights the need to take a public health approach to addiction. Scotland has the highest drug deaths rate in Europe, something which became very real to a friend of mine recently when her son died after taking street valium. Typically, she thought of others before herself and allowed the BBC to film his funeral.

Willie Rennie said today that the next Scottish Government will only end the drug deaths crisis through compassion and health treatment, not prosecution, as he revealed new figures showing 605 people convicted of possession without intent to supply being sent to prison.

Meanwhile, only 108 people received a Drug Treatment and Testing Order during the same three year period (2016/17 to 2018/19).

1264 people died of drug related causes in 2019. Each of them were individuals with talents and skills. Each of them loved and had people loving them. Pretty much 3 people a day lose their lives and each one of them, with the right intervention, could still be alive today.

So the Scottish Liberal Democrats, looking to the best evidence, has the following measures to tackle the harm that drug addiction causes to people and communities that are focused on help and support. The party will:

  • Reduce the misery of drug abuse with compassion and health treatment rather than prosecution.
  • 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.
  • Protect and enhance drug and alcohol partnership budgets, and 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.
  • Use emergency housing funding to help people keep their homes and tenancies while they undergo treatment and rehabilitation.

Willie Rennie said:

The SNPs failure was more than just a political failure, it was a failure that cost the lives of hundreds of people.

Not only did the SNP fail to take the necessary action to save lives, they made it worse by cutting the alcohol and drug partnership budgets, surrendering services and expertise.

It was admitted in 2017 that essential drug reforms weren’t pursued because it wasn’t seen as a vote winner. This is political negligence of the highest order.

Scottish Liberal Democrats will put recovery first. We will reduce the misery of drug abuse with compassion and health treatment rather than prosecution. After years of being told no, Scottish Liberal Democrats have just won cross-party agreement for that important principle.

However, these new statistics show how far off that is from happening. The same number of people are being imprisoned for personal possession as a decade ago. The police have spoken about having a sense of hopelessness and helplessness when they see people being sent to prison because they know this doesn’t help save lives.

We need to target the dealers and get vulnerable people into treatment, not prison.

The memory of standing on the street to watch the coffin of a 20 year old pass will stay with me forever. The next government needs to stop these tragedies happen by the sort of public health approach that has worked so well in places like Portugal.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • I hope we can get some decent traction for this in the next parliament. There did seem to be a bit of a cross-party swell of interest around the publication of the last set of of drugs related deaths, which I hope sticks. People do seem to be realising that there are things that can and should be done using the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament.

    Perhaps more importantly, there seems to be more understanding amongst the population as a whole that drug misuse is so often a symptom of other problems and that compassion is key. I fear that politicians have assumed, possibly correctly, that most voters don’t care, so it’s really important to make sure they know that we do.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Apr '21 - 5:15pm

    The frustration, of course, is that the UK government has reserved drug laws to itself and the Scottish Parliament is therefore trying to deal with this problem with ‘one hand tied behind its back’. Why can Willie not also call for these powers to be devolved as part of his approach to this issue, or is he scared that could look like he was supporting the SNP position on this issue if he made that demand?

  • John Marriott 21st Apr '21 - 8:59am

    Addiction to narcotics, like addictions to alcohol, tobacco and even, at a stretch, strong tea or coffee, is a sign of an addictive personality and needs to be treated as an illness. We should follow the examples of Portugal, Switzerland and certain parts of the USA and Canada and decriminalise the possession of drugs and return to the position before we join the late President Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ in the early 1970’s where people could register as addicts, be prescribed drugs to tide them over as they sought treatment. I wonder what the true level is of offences committed, either by the ‘suppliers’ or by the addicts to feed their habit and how many prisoners are there because of drugs offences.

    I appreciate that many addicts start on drugs like cannabis and some move on to stronger stuff. But not all people do. Why not? We need answers to these kind of questions before we just sound the alarm bells and block any relaxation of our drugs laws. Why? Because clearly, all around the world, the present policy is just NOT working.

  • It is useful in addressing these issues to get on board some people with actual knowledge of drug culture and drug dealing. A large proportion of young people will have tried some form of drugs in their youth. Only a small minority find themselves becoming addicted. The main gateway drug is more alcohol than cannabis (unlike the USA where you cannot buy alcohol under 21).
    Libdems have adopted a policy of decriminalising cannabis and the London Mayor is to set up a commission to review this approach The biggest problem with cannabis is the dangerous high strength and synthetic strains that are available on the street and are associated with a large rise in psychosis among vulnerable people.
    Scotland has a particular issue with older drug users – the so-called “Trainspotting generation” which began taking drugs in the 1980s or early 1990s. These account for more than half of male drug users and 2/3rds of drug related deaths.
    Many of these folk will have long-term addiction, spanning 15 years or more, and multiple physical health problems alongside underlying mental health problems.
    Drug use more generally is in decline among the younger generation across the UK. But problem drug use north of the border remains disproportionately high compared to England (It is more than three and a half times that of England and Wales) and other European countries, and is primarily associated with the prolonged use of opioids and benzodiazepines, particularly among injecting users. Opioids are associated with the most severe health problems and were implicated in 89 per cent of all drug-related deaths in 2015.
    Willie Rennie is on the right track here in calling attention to this problem. These BBC charts show the depth of the problem
    “”In Scotland, criminal groups are known to be involved in the large-scale illicit manufacture and distribution of fake benzodiazepine medicines… the pills were typically made to look like 10mg diazepam tablets, and known as ‘street Valium”, but these fakes often contained new or uncontrolled benzodiazepines which posed a “high risk of severe poisoning”.

  • The problem Brad is that the SNP Scottish Government has refused to use the hand it has available, except to take funding away from existing drug treatment facilities and to point the finger as Westminster.

    Changing the laws that are currently reserved is one part of the solution, but there is so much more that the Scottish Government could have been doing over the last decade. With the same basic laws in place, Scotland’s death rate is many times higher than the rest of the UK and easily the highest in Europe. So quite clearly that’s not the whole story. The reality is that while complaining about Westminster has been a priority for the Scottish Government, bringing down drug deaths has not.

    Many people think it’s within the Scottish Government’s power to say that the Scottish Police should not prosecute for the possession of drugs, or at the very least, ensure that everyone is offered treatment as an alternative to any punishment. There are also things like attitudes towards prescribing heroin replacements that seem to be more effective in other parts of the UK than in Scotland. On top of that, there seems to be a presumption that once we’ve got someone onto methadone, that’s seen as a success – even if they are stuck on it for years. Not everyone will be able to come off methadone altogether, but there should be more ambition to help those who would like to reduce, then eliminate their dependency on it.

  • As a former Convenor for Social Care and trustee of a Drug and Alcohol charity in Scotland, I’d like to refer Fiona to the House of Commons Select Committee Report on Drug misuse in Scotland published in November, 2019.

    Brad is correct : this is a Reserved Matter for Westminster but it is also impacted by the Westminster Welfare policies adopted by the Coalition Government in which Lib Dems payed a part in 2010-15.

    House of Commons Select Committee Report : Preface :
    “Drugs policy is an issue on which the UK and Scottish Governments take divergent approaches. The UK Government treats problem drug use primarily as a criminal justice matter, whereas the Scottish Government believes it should be addressed as a health issue.3 This difference in approach has caused disagreements between the two governments, most notably with the Home Office blocking an application for a safe consumption facility in Glasgow, as criminal justice sanctions for drugs is a policy area currently reserved to Westminster.

    The welfare policies of the Department for Work and Pensions have a detrimental impact on people who use drugs, and often become a barrier for many people trying to enter recovery. The Scottish Government should also make full use of its existing powers to support people recovering from problem drug use.

  • Select Committee Report, continued,

    The UK Government must review the impact welfare sanctions have on people who use drugs, and outline steps it will take to make the welfare system less adversarial for people who use drugs who are trying to enter recovery.

    Poverty, inequality and deprivation : the single biggest structural driver of problem drug use is poverty and deprivation. Problem drug use is more prevalent “among people from more deprived areas and from less advantaged backgrounds”. NHS Health Scotland told us that drug use disorders are 17 times more prevalent in Scotland’s most deprived areas, compared with the least deprived. It is not necessarily the case that poverty in itself is a direct driver of problematic drug use; however, those in poverty are more likely to be exposed to additional risk factors, such as unstable home life, unemployment, and adverse childhood experiences which increase the likelihood of a person being predisposed towards problematic substance use. Deprivation also make it less likely that a person will overcome their drug problems because “they have less access to factors that support recovery such as meaningful employment and suitable housing”, and having access to secure employment and housing are key protective factors against problem drug use”.

  • Brad Barrows 21st Apr '21 - 4:09pm

    I largely agree with most of the points you make, as you agree that devolving laws on drugs is also part of the solution. My concern with Willie Rennie is that he is so scared to tarnish his ‘unionist’ credentials that he is unwilling to call for the transfer of power over drug laws in case it makes him appear to be giving in to nationalist demands.

  • John Marriott 21st Apr '21 - 7:12pm

    Mr Rennie is right. Don’t prosecute individuals, give them treatment! We are dealing with an illness.

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