Scotland´s All-time high
Through the past decade, Scotland has been living its worst drug death crisis. While the Scottish Government wishes to follow Portugal´s model and decriminalize drugs, the ruling UK Government wants to maintain its prohibition approach, creating a new power struggle between both.
Colin Taylor opened the door to his building when he saw the needles, the trash and the worn-out clothes. It was clear to him that not only had been living there but that they had been using drugs as well.
Sightings like this are not rare for Glasgow residents. The city is one of the most visible faces of Scotland’s drug crisis. With the highest drug deaths per capita, the country has now become a European drug death capital.
21-year-old student, Charlotte Little, has grown up in an environment surrounded by drugs. “I've seen high people stumbling outside highway street restaurants in broad daylight which is pretty shocking. You feel helpless because, on one hand, you don't want to put yourself in danger but you also want to do something.”
This year drug-related deaths reached an all-time high of 1,187 deaths, showing an increase of 27 percent from last year.
But solutions proposed by experts have run into an obstacle: The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 mandated that drug control policies fall under the UK Government´s responsibility. While the Scottish Government has proposed a harm reduction and decriminalization approach, Westminster wants to maintain the prohibition and abstinence response, transforming the crisis into a new Scotland versus UK power struggle.
How did Scotland´s drug crisis get so bad?
The combination of an aging population of drug users, the rising popularity of drug cocktails, treatment centers suffering from budget cuts and an increasing poverty rate created an environment perfect for such a storm.
One of the main issues is the ‘problem drug user’ population, the majority of who are over 35 years old.
The ‘Trainspotting Generation’ started using drugs during the mid-1980s, period in which Margaret Thatcher initiated a series of economic and market reforms that introduced a widespread deindustrialization in Scotland.
“Lots of young white men became unemployed at that time and turned to drug use, particularly heroin, as a kind of way to deal with the stress of that situation. So, you get some people who have used heroin for 2, 3, even 4 decades”, explained Dr. Andrew McAuley, senior research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University.
“The older you are the more likely you are to have been using drugs for a longer time. So, it makes sense that if I started using drugs in the 1980s, I have been exposed to drugs or a long time, so they´ve had a much bigger impact on my health,” expanded Dr. McAuley.
Can it get better?
Ben Campbell, from Transform Drug Policy Foundation, believes that the UK Government’s abstinence-based and prohibition approach is one of the reasons drug-related deaths have grown in the past years.
“We are calling for the legal regulation of all drugs,” explained Campbell. This way measures that are essential to lower the amounts of deaths, like heroin-assisted treatments and drug consumption rooms, could be implemented legally by the government.
Portugal is often used as the example Scotland should follow. During the '90s the country was in the midst of a heroin addiction crisis and, similarly to Westminster´s response, they followed a criminalization approach. But, in 2001, the country launched a comprehensive decriminalization program in response to the public health crisis.
Though, Dr. McAuley wants to emphasize that the secret to Portugal´s success is that they didn´t just decriminalize. “It was three things they did at the same time, and those things were very important to Portugal´s success.”
First, yes, they decriminalized personal possession. Second, they increased investments in treatment and care. “Instead of putting people towards the courts and the police, when they were found with drugs and looked as if they had a drug issue, they were referred to the treatment and care system,” said Dr. McAuley. Finally, there was a large public campaign to destigmatize drug use and to begin viewing drug use as a health issue and not as a criminal justice one.
The research Drug Decriminalization in Portugal explains the tremendous success the new policy has had: “Since Portugal ceased criminalizing drug use, the results have been dramatic. The number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, while overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses have plummeted.”
How did this issue become another rallying cry for devolution of power in Scotland? Austin Smith, from the Scottish Drug Forum, explains “this wasn’t an issue until we invented it as an issue, frankly.”
The problems started after Scottish Ministers proposed a drug consumption room in Glasgow, a professionally supervised healthcare facility where people can use illicit drugs in a safe space. This proposal has been highly recommended by experts, but they were not able to implement it because of The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.
“The problem with the Misuse of Drugs Act is that it doesn’t allow us to do two things: decriminalize drugs because it criminalizes them. And because one of the sections makes it impossible to have a drug consumption room,” explained Smith.
“Before it became a constitutional issue there was very low political engagement,” Smith commented. In a country in which the agenda almost always involved Brexit or the Scottish Independence, the crisis was mostly ignored by politicians until this year’s high death numbers became impossible to ignore.
“We called it a crisis three years ago, not last year. So, they shouldn’t be surprised with the figures being this high,” explained Dr. McAuley.
“Suddenly, it became a big constitutional issue and then it played into our own constitutional politics, that you have in Scotland, around devolution of power, Scotland’s autonomy, independence and so on,” expanded Smith.
The act also establishes that drug policy falls under the UK Government´s responsibilities, so the Scottish Government cannot change it.
Dr. McAuley explains that Westminster has adopted an abstinence-based ideology towards drug use. “They have a very prohibition focused approach, so they see The Misuse of Drugs Act as for purpose, they see criminalization as part of the solution.”
But the national context has changed considerably since 1971. “It was focused on a very small number of users and took a very punitive approach towards drug use at that time. It hasn’t been based on any evidence in relation to harms and has not ever been refreshed or reviewed or updated,” explain Dr. McAuley.
With the rising death numbers and higher political engagement, support for change has grown in Scotland. In October, the Scottish National Party unanimously voted a resolution to support the decriminalization of possession and consumption of controlled drugs.
The approach is also supported by international institutions. The United Nations and the World Health Organization released a joint statement calling governments to review “laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence,” including laws criminalizing drug use or drug possession.
sticking to the status quo
The UK Government´s drug strategy has shown that there is no intention to change any laws, leading both governments to a standoff.
“They claim there´s a legal barrier, but the can change the law,” explains Ben Campbell. “It´s not impossible, it´s been done in other countries, and it´s addressing the crisis.”
In November, the Scottish Affairs Committee asked for drug control power to be devolved to Scotland’s Government if Westminster refuses to change the law.
The Chair of the Committee, Pete Wishart MP, commented on the report: "For too long successive UK Governments have ignored the evidence on how drug policy could be improved. The Government must now start listening to the expert advice they are given, starting with our Committee's Report, to reduce problematic drug use in Scotland and prevent the tragic loss of life."
As a consequence of the upcoming general elections, the UK parliament has dissolved and the Scottish Affairs Committee has ceased work. But calls for change have not stopped from Scotland.
While both candidates for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, have expressed their desire for solving the crisis, neither has expressed support to either decriminalize or devolve drug control power in Scotland.
For now, Scotland will have to settle for the government-appointed Drug Death Task Force, whose job is to examine the main causes of drug death and investigate potential solutions.