Modest progress on drug deaths hides fact we still have mountain to climb - Alex Cole-Hamilton
Yesterday those figures were published and while progress is finally being made, far, far too many of our citizens are losing their lives to this highly preventable public health emergency. All told, 1,051 people died as a result of drug overdoses in 2022. That’s 20 people a week and over three times the rate of anywhere else in the UK.
If there was ever an area where we should shed party politics and work together to make things right – this is it. It’s so important that we improve what is an utterly tragic situation, but sadly the government aren’t making collaboration easy.
Back in July, after years of turning their face against bold proposals to tackle this crisis, the Scottish Government at last acknowledged the benefits that a decriminalisation approach – long championed by my party – could offer. Yet even as they took these baby steps, SNP ministers sought to abdicate responsibility for a decade of failure and lay the blame for this crisis squarely at the feet of the UK government saying: “For too long, a hard and callous approach dictated by Westminster has seen Scotland’s drug crisis worsen, not improve.”
Now I am always ready to criticise UK government policy when it is merited, but this is hogwash. If our drug crisis were solely a result of UK government policy, we would see similar drugs death figures the length and breadth of the British isles. Yet that is not the case. At times the drug death rate in Glasgow has been almost 10 times that of London.
The reality is that you can trace our surge in drug mortality back to SNP government decisions here in Scotland, like the one to cut nearly 25 per cent of the funding to drug and alcohol services in 2015. Our death rate has nearly doubled since then, making Scotland the worst country for drug mortality in the whole of Europe.
It’s easy to criticise, but what we need now are solutions, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are brimming with them. So instead of trying to pass the buck, I want the SNP government to do the following.
Firstly, they should work with the Lord Advocate to establish heroin assisted treatment and safe consumption spaces. They should then emulate international best practice and establish new specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Commissions to help provide wraparound services and to take a holistic approach to those reported for drug offences, learning from best international practice such as that in Portugal.
At a criminal justice level we need to divert people caught in possession of drugs for personal use into education, treatment and recovery, ceasing imprisonment in these circumstances. And we should adopt the principle that individuals and families shouldn’t have to pay for the care and treatment of those at risk of death from drugs and alcohol.
Finally, as this is a particularly Scottish problem, and not, as the SNP would suggest a product of UK Government policy – I would be open to a discussion on the devolution of drugs policy to the Scottish Parliament. This could give us the levers to tailor a particularly Scottish solution to a problem that is measured out in grim statistics published every August.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western Constituency and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats