Once upon a time, there was a debate about drugs in the UK – what the health risks were, how to deal with people who used them, how best to address the various social ills that could be associated with drugs or with public policy towards drug use. Now, we have three words, “Just say no.”
Abstinence/prohibition wasn’t policy as such but a complete absence of any attempting at having to bother, an abdication of power away from government and back towards users and/or “the market.” Drugs were now officially the problem of those who took them and the only answer was for them to stop. They didn’t stop, the market” continues unabated and with no control over what’s sold on the streets, the use of illegal drugs thrive in what is essentially a privatised, unregulated free-for-all.
Rather than repeat any of our rants on the subject, I want to focus on the matter in hand – what kind of drug policy might an independent Scotland actually have? Our drugs of choice (for the purposes of this piece) are cannabis, ecstasy and heroin. For each, I’ll look at the current state of affairs, the case for a change in approach and ask whether and why independence may result in a real improvement in drug policy.
Official figures suggest around 8.4% of Scots use cannabis every year but that can more than double when you examine prevalence amongst young people, 1 in 5 now confess to having smoked it in their lifetime. We now produce more cannabis in Scotland than we consume – all on the black market of course, produced solely for the benefit of gangsters and dealers (although the boost to the taxman/tobacco companies cannot be underestimated). With no money to police such widespread use and no desire to actually kick millions of doors in, cannabis use is now largely ignored, with the laws only selectively enforced against whoever the police don’t like. The sole significant legal change in the last 50 years occurred back in 2004, when the Labour government reclassified the drug to a Class C drug…before changing it back again in 2009.
A 2010 study published in the Lancet confirmed the work of countless others by showing cannabis to be less harmful (both to users and to wider society) than everyone’s favourites, alcohol and tobacco. Further technological developments, like the growth of vapourisers (think E-cigarettes but for weed) create the potential for people to use cannabis without smoking it, massively reducing many of the associated health risks.
Removing cannabis from the black market by properly taxing and regulating its sale would remove the power and revenue of the dealers overnight, generate tax which could be invested in healthcare and research and save thousands of hours currently wasted by the police and the courts. Holland & Portugal have, over time, managed to reduce consumption levels by dealing with cannabis in a less heavy-handed manner (although weed is not “legal” in either country, despite misconceptions). Neither model is perfect but they do demonstrate that it’s possible to stop wasting resources treating cannabis as a strictly criminal issue.
There’s the oft ignored fact that there is large support for cannabis decriminalisation or legalisation in the chamber. During a survey, even some of the Tories said they would support legalisation for medical use. We also finally learned that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confessed to having had a puff, although we feel duty bound to inform readers that she didn’t do anything too illegal, like enjoying it.
SNP policy of yesteryear calls for a review of drug classifications which, “should consider the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and also cultivation for own use.” Holyrood would have no powers at present to implement the recommendations of any such review and the policy was sidelined after devolution.
With no appetite for increasing police resources to significantly stem demand, the options available are either to continue to allow cannabis to go unregulated and the laws against it to remain largely unenforced or to review where cannabis sits on the classification hierarchy. The decision by the UK Government to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug was made despite the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), who exist to advise the UK Government. If any future Scottish Government simply did as they were advised and classified drugs according to harm, there would be no way possessing cannabis for personal use would result in 5 years in jail.
Drug related deaths have increased by more than half in the last 10 years with heroin (and how we’ve dealt with it) being the single most important factor. Official statistics suggest 581 deaths in Scotland per year were drug related, with heroin which contributed to 38% of deaths topped only by methadone, a drug often prescribed to help users quit heroin.
While there has been a move away from just chucking heroin users in prison, many do still end up there while countless non-users become users while locked up. There’s a similar vicious cycle with homelessness; many heroin users become homeless and non-users who are homeless are at higher risk of developing habits while on the streets. With no regulation or testing of what’s being sold, the strength and purity of street heroin remains a major health risk.
There are no silver bullets here and it would be churlish to pretend there were. What’s needed is massive investment in all forms of treatment: community based and residential rehabilitation, methadone programs, abstinence-based approaches and heroin assisted treatments. Putting clean, pharmaceutical heroin back on the NHS, where it was before we made a choice to privatise heroin use, has a clear health and social benefit by allowing what’s being taken to be properly controlled and tested, while reducing the economic control of drug dealers. While it wouldn’t matter from a health perspective what the cost of this would be, it’s worth pointing out that heroin is incredibly cheap to produce yet costs users (and by extension the rest of us) many thousands of pounds a year. All the profits which currently line dealers pockets would be taken out of the equation and the collective cost of heroin use massively reduced.
The Scottish Government has made some laudable progress and the heroin discussion has generally been conducted on health grounds. The decision to widely distribute Naxolone, a drug which can be given to those who have overdosed while medical attention is sought has saved lives and a commendable creative use of health and policing powers even allows non clinicians to distribute the Naxolone kits without fearing prosecution. The latest report from the National Forum on Drug Related Deaths recommended Heroin Assisted Treatment in Scotland but the Government insisted they would not be able to implement this due to the “legal and moral issues”. Leaving the morality aside (and it’s a strange morality which says it’s better for a dealer to exploit a heroin addict for personal gain than for the health service to work to improve someone’s health), the legal “issue“, that the Scottish Government can’t put heroin onto the NHS, means we’re trapped in a cycle of commissioning reports and not being able to actually do as we’re told. Independence would change that and with it, remove the excuse for inaction.
Pills have been around for decades now and there is a large body of scientific evidence which suggests that MDMA (the chemical name for what‘s generally referred to as ecstasy) is a relatively safe drug when compared either with legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco or illegal drugs like methamphetamine, cannabis or cocaine, assuming it’s taken in accordance with what little health advice the Government makes available. Clear figures for ecstasy use are more hard to come by but the worldwide figure for MDMA use may be close to 25 million. Nearly 10% of Scots confessed to having taken pills in their lifetime and the number of people who take a pill throughout the UK in an average month could be in the hundreds of thousands.
The absence of any form of drug testing allows dodgy pills to cause entirely preventable deaths. Contaminates, most notably PMA, have been responsible for recent fatalities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Successive Westminster Governments have ignored the science on ecstasy and even used the existence of such science as justification for removing scientists from the drugs debate altogether. This culminated in the sacking of UK Government scientist David Nutt, who famously pointed out the horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy. What followed was a decimation of the ACMD, with the removal of the need to have any scientific input at all completed by the Tories in 2011.
The 2002 Select Committee report and the 2009 ACMD report which recommend downgrading MDMA to a Class B drug have been completely ignored in the frenzy to condemn anyone who dared to suggest that pills are clearly not the social or health apocalypse the political class seemed to always have hoped, so even possessing 1 pill for personal use could be punishable with 7 years in jail.
We could simply legalise and regulate ecstasy and thus accept the fact that thousands of people have used it for many decades without too many melons being irreparable twisted. As a bare minimum, the current unnecessary deaths which result from the lack of regulation and testing of what’s sold as ecstasy must be a public health priority . We have to stop kids who chose to take pills dying because we value their dealer’s right to make a quick buck selling anything and everything more than we value their health. That means ecstasy testing in clubs and home testing kits being made freely available to users.
Contamination of pills has been more prevalent in the north of the UK, particularly on the west coast and central belt of Scotland, with fatalities and incidents largely confined to the triangle between Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. An approach which prioritises public health requires a degree of legal flexibility which we simply can’t have while classification is reserved to Westminster. Testing in clubs could be easily implemented with a few exemptions to current legislation, with the data made available to health professionals, the public and even the pesky polis. None of this requires making pills legal but it does require the ability to legislate.
Then there’s the more substantive point about classification; Scotland would need a new independent body to advise the Scottish Government on drug policy. This is where it gets interesting.
Please bear with me if your idea of “interesting” rarely involves Parliamentary sub-committees and advisory councils but it’s worth asking what we might expect from a Scottish system. One suggestion would be that we have some scientists and doctors on the body which advises government, a requirement removed under the UK system. Maybe we could do really radical things like research and write reports which make it all the way to Holyrood, without their authors being ritually humiliated by the Government. It’s hard to see how Westminster’s “hang em and flog em” approach to their own scientists and advisors would be a feature any future Scottish Government would be keen to replicate.
There are no definitive answers in this discussion, either about what the best approach to drug policy is or about what we’ll definitely get if we vote Yes or No but we have to look at the balance sheet. As far as drug policy is concerned, we’ve long argued that science, public health and minding your own fucking business should be guiding principles which inform that discussion. When we look at independence, it’s about what creates the biggest potential for real changes to take place.
Will the House of Lords put their hands in the air and tell us how much they love each other, or is it more likely they’ll all crash out and have no idea what happened to that legislation they were supposed to be amending? Will Scotland’s budget be protected and increased to allow our massive drug and alcohol problems to be adequately addressed, or will we continue to face vicious ideologically driven austerity from Westminster? Is the potential for UKIP gains really the best environment to have the kind of sensitive discussion we need to have about making heroin available on prescription? Will the Lib Dems get loads of votes by saying they’ll free the weed and then change their minds as soon as they’re offered a place in a new coalition? Most likely, if we stick with the UK, we’re destined to continue the same failed policies of prohibition, privatisation and deregulation, whether we’re discussing drugs or anything else.
An independent Scotland is unlikely to do anything very drastic in a hurry, most probably we’ll have a vaguely independent body guiding things but that‘s a hell of a lot better than what we have now. Their work addressing heroin in a uniquely Scottish context shows that it is possible for the Scottish Government to lead rather than be led on drug policy but only full powers over drug classification can deliver the kind of life saving changes which their own advisors are now calling for in this area.
When you consider the likelihood that a sizeable chunk of our future Parliamentarians will favour reform of some kind – some on the SNP benches, the Scottish Greens who favour decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, any potential new left party, some independents and even the smattering of Tories from the “none of my business” brigade – you begin to see the beginnings of a change of approach. While debates like those over ecstasy regulation may take years or even decades to move in a sensible direction, it might just take a sneaky wee private members bill at an opportune moment to end decades of pointless cannabis prohibition.
The ability to reset the terms of the drug debate and rebuild the institutions which play a role in shaping drug policy, away from tabloid scaremongering, purges of scientists and a desire to act hard while doing very little, is an opportunity anyone who wants reform should engage with.
This is a chance to grow up and have a discussion about drug policy which doesn’t revolve around sticking our fingers in our ears and hoping drugs will go away. 2014 is the year Scots finally have an opportunity to do something other than just saying “no” to everything, to begin to ask ourselves what the alternatives might look like. If we don’t, we could be walking a weedless wilderness for many decades to come.