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