Scotland’s Killing Fields: Drugs Related Deaths Shock The Nation
David wakes around 6:30, showers, fixes breakfast, and takes off for work. A former drug addict, he is the first to admit that he is one of the lucky ones.
When David was using drugs, he would neglect washing for days, and never brush his teeth. Addicts, he told me, would blame Methadone (a medication used to block cravings) for losing their teeth, but, he had added, addicts don’t care about themselves.
“Unless I had drugs,” he revealed, “I had no motivation to do anything.”
David, from Glasgow, grew up on a housing estate in the north of the city, and started taking drugs when he was 14.
“From where I came from,” he explained, “it was quite a traditional journey into drugs, with cannabis, with things like solvents, stuff like that.”
‘Traditional’ makes it sound like some sort of perverse, Scottish, adolescent rite of passage. But these are youngsters, predominantly, from sprawling council estates, where poverty is rife and grinding struggle a soul-destroying aspect of everyday existence.
So-called ‘schemes’, senses of a real and tangible future, and with that, hope, are almost non-existent. To have aspirations, David informed me, was not the norm. The escape into drugs is killing people in increasingly high numbers.
Figures released on July 16 revealed that the drug related death (DRD) rate in Scotland was by far the highest in Europe, even outnumbernig the USA.
In 2018, Scotland lost 1187 lives to drugs, a shocking 27 per cent increase on 2017. This is the highest since records began in 1994. This equates to 218 deaths per million – in the USA that same year, 217 deaths per million were drug related fatalities. The rate of DRDs in Scotland was also triple that of England and Wales.
In a recent paper, academics Ian McPhee, Barry Sheridan and Steve O’Rawe Of the University of the West of Scotland identified socially inadequate conditions, poverty, and deprivation as a major contributory factor in drug related deaths in Scotland. That is not to say that DRDs in Scotland do not come from other socio-economic situations, of course, but it is predominantly poor people from poor neighbourhoods who are losing their lives.
Another factor outlined by the authors is the fact that governments seem determined to use the full force of the criminal code to punish drug users, instead of treating drug misuse as a health problem.
“The fact that they (drug addicts) have got criminal records stigmatises them and allows the stigma to become discrimination,” Dr McPhee told InsideOver. “Every drug user with a criminal record is discriminated against because every time they apply for a job, every time they go for housing, or access to education, or even if they try to get access to benefits, the punishment continues as long as we continue to criminalise them”
The research paper does note that the Scottish government has introduced several policy measures to try and alleviate the rapid rise in drug related deaths, but the numbers have continued to increase year upon year. Between 2006 and 2016, DRDs in Scotland doubled. This climbed to 934 in 2017, an increase of 8 per cent, and then leapt by 27 per cent in 2018 to 1187.
“Most recently, the impact of austerity, and massive reductions in funding,” Dr McPhee continued, “meant that most of the third or independent sector who provided drugs services were dismantled and not funded. Drug services became highly centralised, meaning that drug users had to travel from great distances, in some cases, to attend. Sometimes, the treatment wasn’t available or wasn’t suitable. So there is a whole series of complexities that have an impact, largely on the poor.”
The criminalisation of drugs users, the neglect of the poorest quarters of society, and austerity measures have combined to create an explosive cocktail of factors impacting largely on the poorest members of society..
“If they keep cutting,” Chris Bermingham, Service Manager with Addaction in Kilmarnock, a small town just south of Glasgow, told me: “You can’t help the people who are going to die.”
In response to these worrying statistics, The Scottish Government have now assembled a task force of experts to look at new and innovative ways of addressing issues around drug taking.
But the devolved government, of course, can only do so much in terms of altering legislation around drugs policy. For now, it is a reserved issue and can only be changed by the United Kingdom’s Parliament at Westminster.
It is sobering to think that in the fifth richest nation on Earth, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are paying a high price for what many would see as the inadequacies of the political system. A system, apparently, unwilling to address poverty and inequality and all of the disastrous trains of consequences for real and tangible life chances.
“We have to change this situation,” Ian McPhee said unequivocally. “We can’t change it by using the systems we have in place. I think we have to embrace what other countries in the EU are doing, particularly Portugal. Portugal not only decriminalised all drugs, they also dismantled the systems that discriminated against drug users. They created access to welfare benefits, they created access to employment, and they asked the police to do other things other than lock up these people and give them criminal records. Scotland has a model that they can embrace if they are bold enough. I am not sure that, at the moment, that is the case unfortunately.”
Scotland faces an emergency situation in relation to the stark statistics around the level of drug related deaths it is now experiencing.
But isn’t there a huge incentive to prevent this rapidly escalating death rate getting even worse? With each tragedy, of course, there is a grieving family, while potentially untapped talent is being allowed to slip away.
As David has shown, things can be turned around. His parting words to me as we finished the interview were:
“Life is great.”
In the meantime, it seems likely that if we continue to demonise and criminalise drug users, fail to properly address poverty and hopelessness, and do not put cash into potentially life saving services, the 2019 statistics are once again destined to make grim reading.