As a response to Scotland’s persistently high rates of drug-related deaths, the government established a Drug Deaths Taskforce. They highlight a need to change the country’s approach to drug use in order to drive down death rates related to drugs. “Doing more of the same won’t work” is the message that the Changing Lives report wants the Scottish government to realise when delivering new strategies in order to tackle the country’s drug death problem.
Dealing with individuals struggling with an addiction “needs treatment, care and support, and compassion”, says former Chief Inspector of Prisons and head of Drug Deaths Taskforce, David Strang. In treating those struggling with addiction with care and compassion, rather than vilifying them – the plan goes – will encourage individuals to seek help for their addiction. This approach, proposed by the taskforce, hopes to bring the rate of drug poisoning deaths down in the country.
These comments were echoed by other leading addiction treatment experts, including Paul Spanjar, a substance abuse counsellor and director of the Providence Projects.
“If existing strategies around tackling addiction worked, we wouldn’t be where we are now. A new approach is needed because shaming individuals only exasperates the issue”.
An Insight into Scotland’s Drug Problem
The most recent statistics, reported by officials at the National Records of Scotland (NRS), registered more than 1,330 drug misuse deaths in 2021. While the figure has decreased for the first time in eight years, the figure remains – by far – the highest rate of drug deaths per million people in the whole of Europe.
With a rate of 244 per million, Scotland’s drug misuse death rate is well over three times the rate in the UK. While there are issues of coding and under/over reporting in European countries when comparing statistics, the country also has a much larger rate of drug misuse deaths than the rate of that of the next largest country, Norway (77 per million).
The decrease may bring some hope to an otherwise very stark situation for the country. A situation that Strang, along with the rest of the Drug Deaths Taskforce, is hoping to successfully address. But what is it that they are suggesting the government does in order to make the changes needed to put an end to the drug death epidemic?
What Is Currently Wrong With Scotland’s Drug Policy?
Medical professionals are understanding now that addiction is not a character flaw that needs punishment to change behaviours. For example, in America, the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines Substance Use Disorder as a mental disorder that impacts an individual’s brain and behaviour.
The treatment of addiction as a mental health disorder, and not as a criminal act, is taking time to be reflected in the drug policy of some countries.
Mr Strang highlights that the task force recommends that: ‘People need treatment, care and support.’ He emphasises that ‘If the problem is people’s addiction, then you are not going to solve that by punishing them. That won’t act as a deterrent.’
Scotland’s current drug policy may deter individuals from seeking help. Criminalising those with mental health disorders breeds stigmatisation which stops people from openly communicating with friends, family, and health professionals about their condition. Instead, the silent sufferer reinforces those behaviours associated with the condition.
A policy which encourages those suffering with substance use disorders to feel as though they can seek help without judgement is a policy that will bring drug use out into the open – a place where it can be helped and supported. Drug users need a place where the disorder doesn’t silently strengthen within the solitude of those who struggle with it.
The plan is that drug users will seek help before their addiction leads them to life-threatening consequences. So how exactly can the implementation of care, compassion, and support take place at a government level, in order to battle Scotland’s high rates of drug misuse deaths?
Overhauling Addiction Services and Drug Policy
The Taskforce has delivered various recommendations that they believe will contribute to the reduction of drug misuse death rates in Scotland. These include:
- Implementing new standards for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) across the country, over the span of two years
- Developing and implementing an effective and extensive Naloxone network – Naloxone being a drug that can bring people back from the brink of otherwise fatal overdoses from opioids (heroin, methadone, fentanyl, etc…)
- Improving outreach after non-fatal overdoses
- Increase data sharing between services and policy makers – allowing for emphasis on the experience of families and those with experience of drug use
- Reformation of the Misuse of Drugs Act to enable the establishment of drug injection facilities
Some European countries, such as Portugal, have gone so far as to completely decriminalise the use of all drugs in 2001. Some attribute their low drug death rate (10 per million), to this policy. The question is often asked of those in charge of drug policy, if decriminalisation is the answer to a country’s drug misuse woes.
Mr Strang has highlighted that the task force is “not going as far” as recommending the decriminalisation of drugs to the Scottish government. The question of decriminalisation will remain if the government acts on some of the Drug Deaths Task Force’s recommendations without substantial results.
The Changing Lives report is the final report to be published by the Drug Deaths Taskforce. It is now up to the Scottish government to implement recommendations if they are to lower their record-breaking drug misuse death rates. Some positive outcomes are starting to be observed from within the government.
Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says that the government will spend an extra £250 million over the span of five years in order to challenge the country’s drug problem. Part of this funding, she says, will be used to “do more to tackle, head on, the stigma associated with drug use”, encouraging more people to seek help.
Reportedly, the Scottish government is also exploring overcoming legal barriers in order to enact the establishment of safe consumption facilities. These steps all signify a much needed change in attitudes toward drug use and drug policy in the country.