Scotland’s drug deaths shame

Written by: Dr Richard Simpson, Former MSP (1999-2016) and Deputy Minister for Justice (2001-2002)

Published: 18/01/2021

Former MSP and Deputy Minister for Justice, Dr Richard Simpson, gives his views on the ongoing challenge of drugs deaths in Scotland.

When I was Justice Minister responsible for drugs in 2001, our drug  deaths had shown an upward trend from 1996. Having worked as both a GP and Psychiatrist with addiction experience I was concerned and set up a Drug Deaths Review.

I also wanted to look for new solutions. My first action was to replace the strap line ‘Just Say No’ with ‘Know The Score’ to signal a change. I also got agreement to increase school drug and alcohol education. Labour established Europe’s first specialist drug court  in Glasgow and the first anywhere outside of a city in Fife. (Closed by SNP)

We rolled out of DrugTesting and Treatment Order services as an alternative to custody. (Numbers halved from 1100-550 under SNP)

I also got funding for Europe’s first ‘time out centre’ which was a recommendation of a group(‘A better Way’). The centre at 218 Bath St Glasgow was evaluated as successful in 2005 and has continued to divert hundreds of women every year since. (SNP Never replicated it elsewhere or piloted it for men)

My successor made the ‘Drug Deaths Review Group’ a permanent standing committee. (Terminated by SNP)

One other innovation I supported was to fund the first ever national conference bringing together local groups of Families Against Drugs, now NFAD.

Since 2007 in 13 years of SNP government, annual deaths have almost trebled and are three times that of England with the same legal framework. This despite three policy reviews.

SNP successes have been Naloxone supply and introducing non medical prescribers.

  1. SNP were rightly critical of Labour for not sustaining publicly funded residential rehabilitation places but they have presided over a further 95% reduction in these facilities.
  2. They set waiting time targets. But have not checked the gaming ( distortion practices) of these.
  3. They cut the nursing student intake in 2012 despite vigorous opposition from the Royal College and Unison.
  4. They terminated the Standing Drug Deaths Review G Only reestablishing it in early 2019 but taking 6 months to commence.
  5. In 2015 they cut the funding for drug treatment services by 23% only restoring those cuts in 2018. However this cut was on top of years of austerity-related smaller cuts, 2010 levels have not been restored
  6. They failed to ensure that eCare created a national electronic Single Shared Assessment/data collection app to integrate the waiting times data set and the NHS data sets SMR 24a&b. In 2013 they gave the Information Services Division the task of establishing a new app DAISy, it has still not materialised.
  7. The law has always played catch up. Needles, syringes, citrus, sterile water all followed the same pattern with concerned providers breaking the law until the law was changed. Peter Krykant a recovered addict himself has set up what he calls an ‘Overdose Prevention Pilot’ a safe space drug consumption room (DCR). The Lord Advocate needs to make clear that, like Naloxone suppliers, he will not be prosecuted as he does not supply drugs and his actions are in the public interest. The SNP has largely chosen to make it a legal constitutional issue.
  8. There has been a failure to examine international evidence. Not just DCRs but also the approach to possession for personal use. This is especially true for cannabis. With Canada and many US states legalising cannabis thus eliminating criminal supply,whilst controlling quality and raising tax. A move here to at least decriminalise if not legalise is overdue.
  9. Our drug death rate was proportionately higher than Portugal in 2002 when I went to look at their new system of diversion to treatment. (Our deaths 330/5m population theirs were 400/11m. By 2019 our deaths1264/5.25m theirs 40/12 m)
  10. The gap between addiction services and psychiatric services has resulted too often in users being bounced back and forth remains unresolved.
  11. The problem in prisons(SPS) is they are overwhelmed by rapid turnover offsetting SNP’s commendable efforts to reduce short term sentences. SPS have begun to address through care issues. They are also increasing Naloxone supplies on release but at 23% too slowly.

Scotland’s users’ appetite  for multiple drugs and alcohol, benzodiazepines in particular, makes the challenges greater. The SNP are pinning their hopes on the re-established Drug Deaths Review, but the new Minister, Angela Constance, will have a hard task unless radical changes are made quickly.

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