Way we tackle drug addiction must improve - Lorna Slater

Last week saw the publication of Scotland's drug death figures for 2020. The number of deaths was shocking, with 92 in Edinburgh alone. The crisis is getting worse, with last year being the worst year on record.

Green Party MSP Lorna Slater
Green Party MSP Lorna Slater

Behind every death there is a person and a story. There are also families, friends and loved ones who are in mourning. The experiences will differ hugely, but a lot of the contributing factors are the same. So much human potential has been lost, with addiction, abuse, misery, trauma and poverty underpinning far too many deaths.

Problematic substance use does not exist in a vacuum. It is woven into many wider social and economic issues. It is no surprise that the rate of deaths is far higher in deprived areas than affluent ones. The families and communities hardest hit are often ones that have already been let down and need support.

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The people who are dying are victims, with many coming from already marginalised communities. They are rarely able to navigate complicated systems to get the help they need.

As David Liddell of the Scottish Drug Forum has argued, "by the time their drug problem begins they are already hugely disempowered and disenfranchised."

We need to address the levels of funding and resources for services and ensure that they are increased and targeted in a way that recognises the scale of the crisis. But the issue is not just financial. There are also big questions about government policy and the assumptions that underpin it.

We must take lessons from countries like Portugal who have taken radical action. In 2001 Portugal’s drug-related death rate was in line with the EU average. However, the government took a different path, with big steps towards decriminalisation.

Since then, Portugal has sent fewer people to prison for drug offences and focused more resources on rehabilitation. This is not to say the Portuguese government has got everything right, although deaths have been consistently lower than the European average and are one fiftieth of the rate in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament has a pretty strong record when it comes to harm reduction. We saw that with the smoking ban and minimum unit pricing for alcohol, which saved lives. Similarly, the approach taken to knife crime has massively reduced the number of homicides. Our approach to drugs must continue that same tradition. That means parties working together for the common good and taking the big steps that are needed.

A lot of the debate focuses on where powers lie. My Green colleagues and I fully support the devolution of powers. But we also need to do more with the ones we have. The

Scottish Government must go much further. Last month my colleague Gillian Mackay successfully moved an amendment calling on it to investigate whether it can establish safe and legal consumption rooms within the existing legal framework.

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This week 25 people in our country will die from drug related causes. The same will happen next week, and the week after that. Their voices need to be heard, and so do those of the people closest to them, who will know the pain and anguish of supporting someone through an addiction.

Many of these deaths and the horrific circumstances that led to them could and should have been prevented.

Lorna Slater is a Green MSP for Lothian