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ALBERT Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the current drugs policy.
As a young man growing up in a mining community in the ’80s and ’90s, cannabis was the drug of choice at that time. Then heroin hit the cities and housing schemes before the rave scene popularised ecstasy.
A few years ago I chaired a session of the Scottish Parliament health committee. I took the opportunity to tell the then Cabinet Secretary Shona Robinson that the streets of Scotland were now awash with cheap cocaine (the new drug of choice for many) and that this was having a terrible impact on our young people, their families and communities.
What depressed me about our exchange was the lack of awareness of the extent of the problem and the complete lack or urgency in dealing with it — indeed the impression I got was that she and journalists reporting the committee’s business simply didn’t believe the point I was raising.
This feeling was exacerbated in subsequent parliamentary exchanges with the Public Health Minister Joe Fitzpatrick — all the more remarkable as his home city of Dundee, the place he represents, has the highest levels of addiction and drugs deaths in Britain and Europe.
I have to say, I found this thoroughly dispiriting. You only have to open your eyes and ears to see and hear the evidence of this in our pubs, clubs and communities.
The drugs market has changed. Cocaine, previously only affordable to the middle classes, is now cheap and easily available in every town and village.
Nine hundred and thirty four drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland in 2017, 8 per cent higher than in the previous year — this year that figure will pass 1,000 and possibly hit 1,200.
The refrain from some nationalists is that the failure to devolve drugs laws is a major barrier to addressing this crisis. Now I support the call for devolution of drugs powers but drug deaths in Scotland are running at two-and-a-half times the rate of the rest of Britain where the powers are the the same — clearly something else is going on here.
If we look at the East Midlands and Durham we see Labour police and crime commissioners taking a far more progressive and public health based approach to drugs misuse. They are pushing their powers and the law to the max to deliver an approach that seeks to reduce harm , improve health and avoid criminalising vulnerable and needy people. Scotland should follow this approach now but also seek the devolution of powers.
“The war on drugs” has failed. We have more addicts, more drugs, more drugs-related organised crime, more deaths and more families left without a father, mother, son or daughter.
I despise drugs and the dealing of drugs and believe those who profit from other people’s misery should be severely dealt with but we have to be honest — arresting a few dealers will soon see them replaced by others and the misery will continue.
We cannot arrest our way to a drug-free society. From the dawn of civilisation humans have taken mind-altering substances and they will continue to do so no matter what — that is a depressing and harsh reality, so we have to deal with it rather than pretend it will go away with tougher sentences and a harsher regime for those caught in possession. This is fanciful and delusional thinking.
The reality is we have to change our approach or every year more and more of our fellow citizens will die.
And the model for change exists — in the ’80s and ’90s Portugal was in the grip of a drugs epidemic that saw a steep rise in HIV infection and death rates soar to the worst in Europe. Something had to be done and it was.
Portugal decriminalised personal possession of drugs and implemented a major harm reduction and public health programme.
The new policy was based on three pillars: that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals wider personal problems (relationship breakdown, violence, poor mental health etc); and that the eradication of all illegal drug use is an impossible goal.
This reflects the discussions I’ve had with the drug-using community in Scotland. Most harmful users have resorted to drugs because of trauma or major negative events in their lives and unless these issues are addressed then the user will lurch from one substance or behaviour to another, all while never coming to terms or being able to cope with their trauma.
The Portuguese policy treats everyone as individuals, resulting in the number of people voluntarily entering treatment increasing significantly.
HIV infection has dropped dramatically, down 52 per cent, jail sentences for drug-related offences have decreased and the rates of problematic drug use are down.
And the headline drug deaths rate has gone from more than 1,000 a year to about 50 per year.
While the focus of the discussion in Scotland in recent months has been about safe-injecting rooms, in reality this is a relatively small part of a bigger jigsaw.
What we need is a change of mindset and an approach that looks at how we help drug users live safe, well and crime-free, and help them get the treatment they need to address their underlying issues and their drugs use.
The results from Portugal suggest this would be far more productive than arresting and re-arresting the same offenders without addressing what is at the root of their problems.
Neil Findlay is Labour MSP for Lothian – follow hin at www.facebook.com/NeilFindlayMSP and @NeilFindlay_MSP.
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