Can the UK and Scotland Set Aside Differences to Fight Drugs?

Can the UK and Scotland Set Aside Differences to Fight Drugs?

By Mure Dickie



Difficulty working together is complicating the battle against a growing epidemic.

By Mure Dickie

As a police officer, Brian Casey helped wage the U.K.’s war on drugs. Now, as a Church of Scotland minister, he spends much of his time dealing with its casualties. 

Between a fifth and a quarter of the funerals the Rev. Casey conducts at his parish church in the economically deprived Glasgow district of Springburn are for people whose deaths are drug-related — victims of an expanding epidemic that raises serious questions about U.K. and Scottish drug policy. 

“I joined the police in 1991, and we were fighting the war on drugs … we are still fighting the war on drugs 28 years later and we are losing it,” Casey says. “I’m seeing the other side of it now, when I’m dealing with the families that have gone through this grief.” 

Scotland’s drug-deaths crisis — and the difficulty of getting rival U.K. and Scottish governments to cooperate effectively to address it — was highlighted last week at two separately organized drug “summits” in Glasgow. 

The U.K.’s Home Office held a gathering of drug experts and policymakers from across the country on Thursday. The Scottish government, which had for months been planning a similar conference in Glasgow, responded by rescheduling its summit for Wednesday. 

While the back-to-back events point at rival political agendas, participants at both summits had plenty to talk about. Data released last year showed that drug-related deaths in Scotland had soared 27 percent to 1,187 in 2018 compared with the previous year, the worst toll since records began in 1996 and a higher death rate than any other European country. 

While U.K. Conservative ministers appear determined to use the law to crack down on drugs, the Scottish government wants to shift to treating addiction as primarily a health issue. Members of the governing Scottish National Party last year backed the decriminalization of illegal drug use. 

Casey says viewing the crisis as a public health matter would be more effective in reducing addiction and would slash drug-related crime. “This isn’t about politics — this is a social justice, a health issue,” he says. “Rather than criminalizing people or demonizing them, we need to treat them with respect.” 

The most rapid growth in drug-related deaths in Scotland was among people aged between 35 and 44, although there has also been a jump in deaths of 45-to-54-year-olds, a cohort that includes members of the so-called “Trainspotting generation,” named after a 1993 Irvine Welsh novel that featured heroin addiction in the 1980s. 

Our drug services are still stuck in the late 1980s.

Annemarie Ward of Favor U.K., a charity for recovering addicts

Official data suggests the death rate in Scotland is more than three times higher than in England, a statistic that in part reflects a higher use of illegal drugs north of the border, but which critics say also points at an inadequate response by Scottish authorities.

Annemarie Ward, chief executive of Faces and Voices of Recovery (or Favor) U.K., a charity for people recovering from addiction, says Scottish treatment and rehabilitation is under-resourced, its users are stigmatized, the success of faith-based recovery programs are ignored and many addicts are merely parked on the heroin substitute methadone. 

“Our drug services are still stuck in the late 1980s,” Ward says, as Favor U.K. supporters gather at the Springburn parish church to plant crosses commemorating drug-related deaths.

Karen Duffy, a heroin addict for two decades, plants a cross for her brother, who died last year of an overdose involving methadone and “street Valium,” often badly adulterated tranquilizer pills that can now easily be bought on the internet for home delivery and can cost as little as 25 cents each. 

Duffy, 40, says years on methadone had not helped her out of addiction. It was only after a second amputation operation to her leg — this time above the knee — that she was given the chance to go into residential therapy to address issues underlying her addiction. 

“It took me losing the same leg twice to get offered treatment,” she says. 

However, Scottish public health minister Joe FitzPatrick says there is no clear evidence that rehabilitation reduces drug deaths or that drug treatment in England is more successful than in Scotland.

Scottish Daily Politics 2019

Scottish Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick speaks during Portfolio Questions in the Scottish Parliament, in Edinburgh.

Source Ken Jack/Getty

FitzPatrick, who last year set up a national “drugs-death task force,” says the experience of Portugal demonstrated the need for a “joined-up” strategy. That country has slashed drug deaths since 2001 by removing criminal sanctions on personal possession and focusing on harm reduction and health promotion. 

“That shows we need to make a seismic shift in policy toward a public health approach,” FitzPatrick says, also citing a report by the cross-party U.K. Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee in November that indicates there is a “strong case” for decriminalization of drug possession for personal use. 

But while justice and health issues are devolved to Edinburgh, Westminster retains control of drug policy, and the Conservative U.K. government has repeatedly waved aside calls for even a limited softening of the law or how it is enforced. 

U.K. ministers have also blocked attempts to set up a drugs consumption facility, or “fix room,” in Glasgow that would give addicts a safe environment in which to inject heroin.

“It makes sense for [drug] policy to be devolved, but if that is not going to happen then I hope that the U.K. government would at least look at how their policies could complement rather than jar against the public health approach that we are trying to take,” FitzPatrick says. 

Still, he insists that the Scottish government welcomes the U.K. summit and that its event was rearranged to complement, not compete, with it. 

The U.K. Home Office also struck a cooperative tone. “This is not a party-political issue, and, like the Scottish government, we see working in partnership as essential to making progress,” it says. 

Donny Balloch, a retired drug treatment worker and former addict who credits his recovery to rehab, says he fears the Glasgow gatherings were just about point-scoring and “political waffle,” but adds: “I would love to be surprised though.”

By Mure Dickie

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