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The War on Drugs is a war on people


You probably missed it. It’s not a very nice subject. 31 August was International Overdose Awareness Day, a day for reflection, remembrance, and a call for action.

Deaths arising from drug misuse in Scotland are at an unacceptable level: the worst in Europe and five times higher than England. It can only be put down as a political failure.

Because of the illegal status of the substances, users are automatically criminalised, which discourages them from seeking help. Pejorative language, like ‘ghetto’, and ‘junkie’, is often used, which can all too easily be co-opted by politicians into culture wars to demonise, ostracise, and marginalise individuals and minority groups.

The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is really a war on people. As a business model, it gives and gives to the overlords. The origins of an awful lot of dirty money sloshing around the world are in illicit drugs.

The price is paid in individual lives, broken communities, and the public purse. Complicit politicians around the world do little more than service the commercial interests of the illegal industry.

The Auditor General for Scotland said in March: “… it’s still hard to see what impact [drug and alcohol] policy is having on people living in the most deprived areas, where long-standing inequalities remain.”
The Scottish government commissioned a report into the matter, released in July. It was widely condemned by politicians and professionals alike as a wasted opportunity.

The policy area is littered with short-term projects. What is needed is secure long-term funding which will enable the agencies to develop expertise and speak truth to power. It must be accompanied by ambitious targets, rigorous monitoring and robust political support.

Other countries successfully have overdose prevention centres. They throw up some knotty problems, but nothing that can’t be sorted by inter-professional co-operation under government-level leadership.

The term ‘drug’ needs to be separated out. Few of us would be as healthy as we are at the age we are without judiciously prescribed medical drugs intended to enhance or prolong life.

Recreational drugs fall into two groups. The first – alcohol and tobacco for example – is legitimately acquired and openly taken for pleasant and temporary effects. Some legislation surrounds them because they can be harmful and addictive.

Then there are illicit drugs. Why do people take them? Because they are seductive and available. You might as well prohibit sex as prohibit them. And, like sex, they are properly the subject of health education and care rather than law enforcement.

There never was a clear dividing line between any two of the above categories of drug, or all three. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who has served as a prison chaplain, has said that problematic drug users he knows are self-medicating.

No-one sets out to be an addict. It’s easy enough to take the first shot, unaware of the dangers:
If he could bind his hands in wire
Or cleanse his eyes in lime
He’d take back the fated curiosity
Of that first time
Ignore the three little words
Every lost soul yearns to hear
– Try this, mate –
And seek his peace elsewhere.*

Addiction is a complex condition, with no single precipitating factor. However, many addicts have a history of mental health problems, often a result of childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Poor education and lack of opportunity and ambition can have similar effects.

There is a well-worn adage: ‘If you have a life you don’t need to do heroin. If there are gaps in your life, heroin will find the gaps’. There were many gaps in personal and community lives in Leith in the Trainspotting days of the 1980s.

When the culture and the business links become established, they are hard to shift. Whereas deaths in Scotland in 2021 were slightly down, Edinburgh bucked the trend with 109, which has more than doubled in the last decade: the capital of Europe for deaths arising from drug misuse.

“The greatest theft is not financial. It is not in cyberspace. It is spiritual” (Stephen Covey). Addiction leads to loss of personality, moral compass, health, relationships, autonomy, and sometimes life itself.

We all have habits, some good and others we wish we didn’t have but we learn ways to minimise any damage. Addiction is a habit so forceful that addicts can be well aware it is causing serious harm and possibly brings a real risk of death, even as they self-administer.

What is an overdose? It could be a single use of a substance that is toxic enough or gives a sufficient shock to cause immediate death. Or it could be persistent use of substances that cause the progressive failure of vital organs over a period – perhaps decades. Procurators Fiscal do not record death by suicide unless there is clear evidence of an intention or wish to die.

She adjusts the picture on the nightstand
Of the wee angel she once knew
Who love wasn’t strong enough to save
Though Lord knows she tried to
Tim Bell

*From Edinburgh ‘86 by Sophie Leah which appears in The Darting Salamander,

A mural by the artist Rebel Bear

The greatest theft is not financial. It is not in cyberspace. It is spiritual - Stephen Covey



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