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Second wave of super-strong heroin is set to hit Scotland. We must not repeat 'War on Drugs' mistakes of the first in the 1980s

When the first wave of heroin hit Scotland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the decision to concentrate on prosecutions, rather than health, was a mistake.

This is the subject of my Scotsman column, published in today's paper (16th April 2024)...

Forty years ago, in 1984, many of our communities were at the peak of the disastrous first wave of heroin to hit Scotland. The highly addictive opiate arrived as the result of political turmoil in the Middle East. The fall of Iran’s Shah a few years earlier had destabilised the region, leading to a flood of cheap Afghan heroin on our streets.

The consequences were catastrophic. By 1984, the effects were being felt across the country. Drugs deaths were rising, crimes like housebreaking were soaring, and organised crime groups were taking root – those that persist today owe their origins to that first wave of heroin.

Few saw it coming and, in the face of this entirely new threat, we failed to understand the nature of addiction, and treated drug misuse as a crime problem that could be crushed by enforcement. It may have seemed logical then, given the crime associated with drug misuse, but we know now it was a disastrous miscalculation that led to years of the fruitless “War Against Drugs”.

Although we tried, we could never have arrested our way out of the problem. Tackling supply without addressing demand was always doomed to fail and eventually the penny dropped with the introduction of effective drug-treatment services. But heroin never slackened its death grip. Other drugs added to the problem, cocaine, street Valium, and many others came and went, but heroin remained a constant.

Since then drug strategies and well-evidenced policies have been launched with fanfare only to be left to wither as funding was turned on and off as political moods changed. As a result, 40 years on, Scotland has the worst drug-death rate in Europe, an immense burden on health and social services and prisons bursting at the seams.

You might imagine things could hardly get worse, but I fear it might. In the latest dreadful set of drug-death figures was the report of the significant presence of synthetic heroin, not derived from poppies but laboratory produced, and many times more powerful.

"The Faces of Fentanyl" wall, which displays photographs of Americans who died from a fentanyl overdose, at the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters in Arlington, Virginia (Picture: Agnes Bun/AFP via Getty Images).

The consequences of Middle East turmoil are back. When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, they banned heroin-poppy farming and sharp-eyed Chinese laboratories saw a gap in the market. We know what happens when super-powerful synthetic drugs take a hold: America’s Fentanyl epidemic is a stark example. We cannot say we haven’t been warned, there can be no excuses if we’re caught out again.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to invest in proven drug-treatment services. But it’s not all doom, we know what works. One of our most successful services is about to begin a new chapter. The Lothian and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme (Leap) is about to change leadership. Dr David McCartney, who helped to found the project and has led it to success for the last 15 years, is about to retire.

His vision and leadership has driven the success of Leap and saved countless lives. We owe him a debt of gratitude and can be sure he has left his life’s work in good hands. It will be needed. We can turn back this second wave of ‘super heroin’ if we wake up, and follow the evidence of good practice.

Tom Wood is a writer, former police officer and chair of Alcohol & Drug Action Teams

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