The Scottish Affairs Committee has today published its report on Problem Drug Use in Scotland. Drug-related deaths in Scotland reached an all-time high of 1,187 last year.
In what has been one of the most extensive inquiries ever conducted into problem drug use in Scotland the committee heard from agencies, health services, academics, Governments, those with lived experience as well families who have been affected by problem drug use. The committee also visited Portugal, Germany, and Canada to examine the evidence from international examples. The report concludes that Government approach to drug use must be substantially reformed.
“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".
The report recommends that a public health approach must inform Government policy and that policy must be evidence led. Drugs for personal use should be decrimincalised, the report says, and legislation must be brought forward to provide for drug consumption facilities. If the UK Government is unprepared to bring forward that legislation then the power to do so must be devolved. The report also says that the Scottish Government must do more to ensure that drug services within its responsibilities are properly funded and supported.
The UK Government currently treats drugs as a criminal justice matter.
However, MPs overwhelmingly heard that criminal justice sanctions are counter-productive, and are calling upon the UK Government to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The Committee found that decriminalisation can help deal with the root causes of problem drug use, such as stigma, trauma, and other mental health concerns, and encourages people to seek treatment. People who have experienced traumatic experiences may turn to drugs as a way of coping with “overwhelming emotional and somatic sensations” caused by their experiences, says the report. Turning Point Scotland told the Committee that mental health problems is the most common issue present in people who access their support services.
Homelessness and involvement with the criminal justice system were both illuminated as a risk factor for problem drug use.
Such an approach, examining the root of the drug problem and making those with it feel supported, could also allow the Government to focus its policing resources on the supply chain and provide more resources for treatment. The Committee is also urging the Government to adopt a health-focused approach to drugs, and for the Department for Health and Social Care to take over lead responsibility for drugs policy from the Home Office.
The Chair of the Committee, Pete Wishart MP, commented:
“Throughout our inquiry we heard tragic accounts of the pain and suffering that problem drug use is causing in Scotland. If this number of people were being killed by any other illness, the Government would declare it as a public health issue and act accordingly. The evidence is clear – the criminal justice approach does not work. Decriminalisation is a pragmatic solution to problem drug use; reducing stigma around drug use and addiction, and encouraging people to seek treatment.
We’re not the only ones calling for this change. The Health and Social Care have also said the Government should consider decriminalisation. It reflects the weight of evidence in support of this approach, and I hope the next Government takes this recommendation seriously.”
Safe drug consumption facilities
The Report highlights overwhelming evidence that safe drug consumption facilities – places where people who use draft can consume drugs in a safe environment with sterile equipment while being supervised by medical staff - are proven to reduce the immediate health risks associated with problem drug use. These facilities reduce overdoses, drug-deaths, and lower rates of infection.
The Report argues that while these facilities do not come without their challenges, and are not a silver bullet, they could be a cost-effective and evidence-based solution to Scotland’s drug crisis. The Report expresses deep regret that the Home Office has chosen to block a proposed facility in Glasgow. The MPs argue that the Government’s reasons for blocking the proposals are not convincing, especially given expert evidence that the case for such a facility in Glasgow is “the most compelling in Europe”. The Report recommends that the UK Government bring forward the legislation necessary to allow for the pilot of a safe drug consumption facility in Glasgow. If the UK Government refuses to do so, the Committee argues that it should devolve the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that the Scottish Government can introduce one itself.
Evidence-based policy making
The Report outlines evidence that the UK Government’s current approach to drugs is not evidence-based. Throughout the inquiry, the MPs heard from expert academic and medical witnesses that the UK Government routinely accepts recommendations in favour of tightening drug laws, but rejects those in favour of liberalisation.
The Chair, Pete Wishart MP, has commented: “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.”
The role of the Scottish Government
Responsibility for addressing problem drug use is not just the responsibility of the UK Government. The Scottish Government is responsible for healthcare service in Scotland and the Committee concludes that the Scottish Government could be doing more on the delivery of drug-related health treatment and that its decisions, such as that to cut funding for Alcohol and Drug Partnerships in the 2016/17 Scottish Government budget, have made the situation worse.
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The Committee concluded that, if the Scottish Government wants to call for more powers to tackle the drug crisis, it must demonstrate that it is doing everything within the powers it already has.
Read the full report here.