On Wednesday, the 30th December, the UK Parliament will be recalled to do three things. To finally agree on the creation of a virtual chamber, extend recess until the 11th January and in one day process the UK withdrawal bill by completing the second reading, committee stage, third reading, then up to the Lords for the same one, two, three and then send it off for Royal Assent.
The Conservative and Unionist UK government with the support of the UK Labour Party will vote through a deal that will risk the erosion of workers rights and protection of the environment. It will slow the recovery from the coronavirus recession, and create higher prices in the shops. This will have huge implications for jobs in Scotland and across the UK. Our economy has already been damaged as a result of Brexit, with the Warwick study estimating Scotland had lost £3.94billion by July 2020. The vote on Wednesday is to accept or reject this shambolic deal. #
I shall vote against it with a clear conscience. This will be spinned as voting for a ‘no’ deal but that’s not what the vote is for because that’s not how Parliament works. The question is very simple, do I accept this deal for the people of Inverclyde and Scotland and the answer is a resounding, no.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Member of Parliament for Inverclyde
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
It would be the understatement of the year if I were to say that the last twelve months have been extremely challenging for us all. So, I won’t. In the last twelve months businesses have been destroyed, organisations stretched to breaking point, families and friendships put under pressure and responsible individuals have gone to extreme lengths to protect themselves and their communities. All of this was of course as a result of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.
A year ago, I had not even heard of COVID and today it has touched all of our lives. Since then Parliament has taken on many different forms and my working practices have been modified on an ongoing basis. This is true for the majority of us. It’s been a year like no other, but I don’t want to forget it, I want to learn from it. Looking to next year, I don’t want to take for granted being able to mix with family and friends. I want to appreciate travelling without restrictions and I want to greet friend and foe without fear of infection. At the start of every year we look forward to new beginnings and make plans to reduce our weight, exercise more and read more.
Next year’s resolutions may be a little different, reduce negativity, love more and care more. I can’t promise that 2021 will be a better year for you or me but whatever it throws at us, I hope we can rely on the comfort and support of our friends, family and community, many of which have shone through the storm that was 2020. I hope you find peace, love and understanding in the year ahead.
Many words have already been written or spoken regarding the most recent announcement that in 2019 1,264 people died as a result of problematic drug use. The ‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2019’ report contains all the cold and analytical figures and it goes into great detail in the 88 page report to inform about drug types, usage and age groups. But when the range of drugs is so large and when polydrug use is so widespread I wonder just how significant the actual drugs are and if we are coming to this problem from the wrong angle.
In society we use drugs all the time. They vary in strength and in social acceptance. If you sit down at night and reach for a glass of wine or beer then you are using alcohol as your drug of choice. You probably don’t rationalise your consumption. You consume it and you enjoy it because it changes the chemistry of your brain in a way that you find acceptable. If you can consistently choose not to lift that drink then you don’t have a problem. Only 10% of drug users ( and I include alcohol as a drug ) can be defined as problem users. But there are many reasons why we use drugs and many reasons why some people form addictions. I should say now that I consume alcohol. Probably less now than I ever have and I have never considered myself a heavy drinker. And I have taken heroin. And it was amazing. I used it to address an issue I had at the time. An issue so great that I knew that taking heroin would lift me out of that situation and relieve my pain. And it did. I was passing a kidney stone and the pain was excruciating and my heroin was medical grade morphine and I accept that there are differences but none that mattered to me at that time. Of the 10% of problematic drug users, the majority are self medicating against pain. Pain experienced through physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Pain that has seeped into their consciousness from years of poverty and disappointment. Pain from a constant gnawing fear of a life unfulfilled. And that is much harder to resolve than my kidney stone because that doesn’t recur everyday and night. Whether the drug is Morphine, Heroin, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Fentanyl, Methadone, Buprenorphine, Cocaine or Gin and Tonic with ice and lemon the pain will return unless the causes are addressed. And I fundamentally believe that is what the Scottish government is trying to do, otherwise we will be on a never ending roller coaster of peaks and troughs. Where they can they are fighting poverty through mitigating the third bedroom tax, provided free prescriptions, free meals for school kids, expanded early learning and childcare, provided free personal care for the elderly, free concessionary travel, no fees for higher education, a fairer social security system, introduced the Scottish child payment and the baby box. They are also spending up to £95.3 million this year to tackle problem alcohol and drug use while investing £900,000 to to fund a new programme to improve the response to drug and alcohol use amongst the homeless population. And we now have Scotland’s first heroin assisted treatment service, located in Glasgow.
The First Minister made it very clear that she acknowledges changes must be made and bravely accepted criticism that many a politician would have run from. Changes have already started with the appointment of Angela Constance as the minister for drugs policy. And she has said “ I’m determined to focus on what works to save lives, to work across parliament and with those on the frontline but most of all to work with and listen to those whose lives have been been devastated by drugs.”
There are ways in which we can help those who are already in pain and the two most obvious could and should be green lighted straight away. Naloxone saves lives. It doesn’t cure addiction but it keeps people alive so they have the opportunity to seek out a better life. I know this is being looked at and pilot projects will run in Dundee, Falkirk and Glasgow East starting next February but we have been talking for a long time and I while I am impatient, people are dying. And Drug Consumption Rooms (DCR) have been tried and tested in many countries. Nobody ever died of an overdose in a DCR and they provide an environment where people can engage with housing and welfare specialists. One version of the Hippocratic oath states “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug”. I would expand that sentiment to politicians too. Because we keep talking and people keep dying.
While at school, one of Boris Johnson’s teacher wrote of him, he is “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”. Or to put it another way, he only thinks of himself (that’s the polite version).
The United Kingdom agreed to a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. The now Prime Minister has attempted to break that agreement and is now complaining that the contents are being quoted back at him. This is an agreement that he fought a leadership battle on, that he prorogued Parliament over, that he fought a general election on, which he pushed through parliament and got the Queen to sign. Is it any wonder that this self-serving chameleon is incapable of negotiating an exit deal from the European Union that doesn’t involve, chaos and confusion.
And where do we in Scotland stand? Who is looking after our interests at the negotiating table? The Scotland Office have refused to back calls for a single market and customs union in Scotland despite Northern Ireland being offered both. Despite continually saying that devolved Parliaments are being included and listened to it is clear that the polar opposite is true. The Prime Minister and his close cohorts are crashing the UK out of the EU. Michael Gove confirmed to me, last week, that the Sewell convention would be ignored and legislative consent from the Scottish Government would not be required. It’s clear to see that agreements and conventions are not considered to be worth the paper they are written on by this Conservative and Unionist government. How can anyone be expected to trust them? Politicians from a range of parties have tried to contribute positively to these negotiations but the superiority complex that abounds amongst the Prime Minister and his friends is stopping them from listening and there is a very grave danger that we will be left to pay the price.
The appalling number of drug related deaths released today (1,264) are a damning indictment of drug policies that have failed to address the problem for decades. These numbers are not because of an ageing cohort of drug users, they are not because of injecting cocaine, they are not because of new drugs or new mixes of drugs. The root problem is a drug policy born out of ignorance and bigotry that has been allowed to dictate policy and influence mindsets since 1971. A drugs policy imported from the USA and of which John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s former domestic policy advisor said “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” And we have been fighting a losing battle based on that lie ever since and “vilifying them night after night”.
Despite the numerous organisations than can intervene, provide support, guidance and care for those in need we have not changed the mainstream view that those people who are dying from drugs are no more than junkies, crackheads and stoners. It’s far easier to isolate people that have been marginalised and stigmatised than it is to listen and understand.
I could blame Westminster all day long because that’s where the policy sits but that would be to ignore our own ability to be visionary and to be brave. We can’t keep talking while people are dying. We need to take responsibility and we need to take action to save lives and protect vulnerable people that will never be saved by the criminal justice system. We need to acknowledge the fact that the majority of people dying come from poor backgrounds. In a year when over seven times as many people died from drugs than died in the car crashes why are we not angrier. Maybe it’s easier to associate with those who died by car because we recognise that, they could be us. While the idea that we could be drug injecting users dying in rat infested allies is more removed and possibly unthinkable. And so, it becomes somebody else’s problem. But the reality is it somebody else’s friend, family member or loved one. Turning our back on the most deprived and disadvantaged individuals and failing to understand what the problem is serves nobody well. Because the problem is not the drug use. The problems are the reasons behind why so many people are self-medicating. And until we address poverty, class division, mental health, isolation and trauma we shall continue to misdiagnose the situation and people will continue to keep dying. We need a policy that recognises that only 10% of users are problematic. It’s time to legalise and regulate drugs. Take the power away from gangsters and criminals. There are working models in other countries across the globe and while it is the same drugs that are being used in those countries they result in far fewer deaths. Scotland should lead by example and create a humane drug policy that isn’t embedded in ignorance but is full of compassion and understanding. I acknowledge that the Scottish government is restricted in what it can do but we should be designing the policy we want and then seeking out solutions. Who knows where we will be a year from now. Let’s start today and prepare for a better country.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Vice-chair of All-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform