Speaking as it was confirmed that the Scottish Parliament have an opportunity to question the Scottish Government over drugs deaths tomorrow, Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP has written an open letter setting out a series of radical proposals to tackle the ongoing epidemic of drugs deaths.
Statistics released on Friday show that 1,339 people died of drug-related deaths in 2020, an increase of 5% from 2019.
Mr Cole-Hamilton is urging the Scottish Government to:
- take radical steps with the prosecution authorities and the Lord Advocate to help establish heroin assisted treatment and safe consumption spaces.
- 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.
- Divert people caught in possession of drugs for personal use into education, treatment and recovery, ceasing imprisonment in these circumstances.
- 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 or alcohol.
Mr Cole-Hamilton’s open letter can be found in full below:
It will be said many more times that Scotland is once again the drugs death capital of Europe. The compendium of statistics published on Friday morning are horrifying. But the individual stories behind each and every one of these drug deaths are, without exception, gut wrenching.
They are stories of lives cut short and potential extinguished. They are stories of opportunities lost. They are stories of families and friends grieving.
There was nothing inevitable about the loss of 1,339 lives in 2020, just as there was nothing inevitable about the thousands of lives lost before theirs. Every drug death is preventable.
It is why I could not and will never understand how the Scottish Government reached the decision in 2016 to cut the budgets of drug and alcohol partnership budgets by 22%. Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats appealed for a rethink on the afternoon that budget was rubber stamped at Parliament.
Help and expertise that people relied upon was needlessly surrendered when professionals on the frontline were already pointing towards a crushing need for service expansion. The practicalities of staffing and service planning means that reinstating budgets a couple of years down the line simply doesn't recoup what is lost.
At the moment of that budget cut, record numbers of drug-related deaths had occurred two years in a row. 2020 represented the seventh year in a row.
In 2017, Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary for seven years and at the time of the independence referendum, wrote: “…silence may have been understandable when the referendum was ongoing, now it’s simply cowardly as tragedy unfolds”.
It was an admittance that his party chose to look away for fear it would be a distraction.
These were conscious decisions taken at the very heart of government. They were decisions that flew in the face of the evidence that existed at the time about how to spare pain and suffering.
Those circumstances mean I find the First Minister's apologies and comments - such as the government didn't do enough, the eye wasn't on the ball or that the current situation is a national disgrace - hard to accept.
But I was determined to offer solutions when I first stepped into Parliament five years ago, for the sake of those gripped by drug misuse and the families who have lost so much already and the families they left behind. I'm more determined than ever to see them adopted now.
Earlier this year, and at the second attempt, we secured parliamentary support for the principle of decriminalisation. In June, Parliament then backed my request for the new Lord Advocate to get to work on this. I asked that she report back at the end of the summer because I believe guidance can be strengthened and that the principles and practicalities around diverting people from the justice system into treatment and education need to be pored over like never before. Imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use must cease.
It is time for Scottish Government to kickstart a new era of drugs policy radicalism. It is time to take radical steps with the prosecution authorities and the Lord Advocate to help establish heroin assisted treatment and safe consumption spaces.
We want to see 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.
Getting treatment can mean families and individuals facing astronomical bills. It is time to adopt the principle that there shouldn't be a price tag for interventions that can save lives and the care and treatment of those at risk of death from drugs or alcohol.
We need a new era of drug policy radicalism to finally turn the corner in the fight to save lives and ensure that people are helped and treated with compassion. We owe this to everyone who is currently struggling, to those who didn’t make it and to their families.