Lauren Davison reflects on the publication of the shocking 2020 figures for drug-related deaths in Scotland, and why the solution rests with Scottish Labour.
Scotland’s drug death rates are the highest of anywhere in Europe. This is damning. All too often, the solutions advocated to deal with addiction and drug-related harm are heavily reliant on the criminal justice system. Rather than forge a policy pathway grounded in evidence, politicians take the lazy, populist route and push for more prison sentences, and prohibition.
When has “don’t do drugs” ever worked? We’ve been hearing it for the last several decades. Still, year on year, drug related harm and deaths increase. We need to get real. That’s exactly what Scottish Labour figures have been doing. Former Labour MP Paul Sweeney has been campaigning hard on this very issue. Earlier this year, he risked arrest to volunteer alongside the dedicated activist Peter Krykant, who runs a mobile Drugs Consumption Room (DCR). DCRs operate on the premise that it is not possible to prevent all drug use – despite what advocates of the phony ‘war on drugs’ claim. However, it is possible to reduce harm and risk – and save lives in the process. That is what any responsible politician, and indeed political party, should seek to do.
A typical DCR is a facility where illegal drugs can be used under the supervision of trained staff and have actually been common practice in other European countries for at least the last 30 years. The first was opened in Switzerland in 1986, with subsequent DCRs being opened in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway and many other countries in the years to follow. The main goal is to reduce disease transmission through sharing needles, preventing overdoses, and providing a more joined-up approach which connects drug users with health treatments and social services. They also serve to prevent risk from needles being discarded in public places, and other public order issues.
The first DCR was given the go-ahead in Glasgow, in 2016. Locally, the DCR achieved widespread support at every level of government, and even from the police. However, the Home Office and Prime Minister intervened shortly afterwards, to say that there was “no legal framework” for DCRs. The government took a hard-line ideologically driven approach. Discretion could easily have been granted, to allow the decriminalisation of consumption – but this would set a precedent and force the Tories to admit their war on drugs hasn’t worked. It seems they would rather contribute to more avoidable deaths than change course and admit there was a better way of dealing with drug addiction – a public health approach rather than a criminal justice one.
Labour in England and Wales should arguably be stronger in its support for this too. It has been encouraging to see the likes of Sadiq Khan champion a public health approach to serious violence and knife crime, but it would be even better to see MPs speak up about drug-related deaths. Too often the stigma apportioned to those who consume drugs keeps politicians from advocating for them – which is unacceptable and must change. We also hear flawed arguments from conservatives about how DCRs would lead to an increase in drug use, “encouraging” users.
What we do know about DCRs is that they lead to reductions in risky behaviours such as sharing needles, discarded needles in public. Equally, a study in Sydney showed that there were fewer emergency service call outs related to drug overdoses during the opening hours of safe injecting sites. DCRs can even increase the uptake of addiction treatment, reductions in drug-related crimes and mitigate overdoses.
In October this year, Scottish Labour backed calls for drug use to be decriminalised, moving away from the justice system and taking a public health approach. This is a victory for those who prize evidence as the most important factor in policymaking; we now need Labour in England and Wales to follow suit. We often hear the term “common sense politics” used by those on the right to justify xenophobia or racism. Shouldn’t common sense politics be used, instead, as a descriptor for politics grounded in evidence, not reactionary grandstanding?
Lauren Davison is a Criminologist with a specialist interest in researching prisons, social harm, and inequality in the Justice System. She is a co-founder of the newly created Young Fabians Criminal Justice Network, and is the Co-Chair of Open Labour's Justice Reform working group! She Tweets at @Lauren1995x_.
The Criminal Justice Network will be hosting their AGM on 13 January at 6.30pm. Find out more and register here: http://www.youngfabians.org.uk/criminal_justice_network_agm_2021 They tweet at @YFCrimJustice.