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Scotland's shocking drug-deaths rate is less about the legislation than repeated failures to...

...deliver on good policies like ‘Road to Recovery’

Here's my latest column in the Scotsman on 28th July 2023....

There is a debate to be had about decriminalising drugs, but lives can be saved by providing decent drugs services.

Whatever side of the drug-decriminalisation debate you are on, there’s no denying that serious discussion is needed. For over 20 years, we have known that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is unfit for purpose. The legislation was enacted when our knowledge was limited and fear of drug-related crime was high. As anyone involved in enforcement will tell you, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ was a tragic misnomer that filled our prisons but did nothing more.

There are compelling arguments for a wholesale review of our drug legislation and some evidence that points to the benefit of decriminalising drugs for personal use. But it’s not straightforward. There are contradictory views and the fear of unintended consequences. How would we ever get the genie back in the bottle if things went wrong? The struggle of Amsterdam to reverse its liberal drug policy is seen by some as a horrible warning.

Our politicians would like to make legislative changes, but fear of the unknown and appearing weak means it’s unlikely we will see change anytime soon. But in a real sense that doesn’t matter because Scotland’s lamentable drug problem has little to do with the legislation. For a start, it does not explain our dreadful record compared with England and Wales, working under the same laws.

It’s not the legislation or the power to divert drug users from prosecution, it’s the fact that drug recovery services do not exist or, like our mental health services, are vastly oversubscribed. An American academic once told me that while Scotland had a good record of policy development, we were very poor at delivery. He had a point, and our recent attempts at delivering drug services are a fine example.

We do not need to look far for a comparison, just over the border in north-east England. The old industrial heartland around Newcastle has many of the same problems as our most deprived areas yet it has a drug-death rate many times smaller. The reasons for this are straightforward.

Like us, they developed evidence-based drug policy, and like us they drew up action plans with performance indicators and costs. But then the differences become apparent. They followed through with their action plans while we invariably did not.

Take our 2008 ‘Road to Recovery’ drug policy, an example I know well. It was a forward-thinking policy, drawn together by a team of able civil servants, led by a capable Cabinet minister. The emphasis was on recovery, it was properly structured and costed, but it never happened. A year after ‘Road to Recovery’ was launched, the minister responsible had moved on and the budgets of alcohol and drug action teams had been slashed by 40 per cent. Our words and actions did not match.

This sorry pattern has been repeated since, with good policy development followed by political vacillation and stop-go funding leading to an interminable and fatal game of snakes and ladders. Decisions about reforming our drug legislation are difficult but that does not mean they should be avoided. In the meantime, if we want to improve our dreadful drug-death situation, we must stick to our plans, allocate funding, and see them through.

Tom Wood is a writer, former police officer and independent chair of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams

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