During the current Covid19 pandemic I have waited with my heart in my mouth for the daily update from the First Minister of Scotland and uppermost in my mind has been the number of deaths recorded in the previous 24 hours. I sighed with relief when that number dropped to zero and rejoiced each day that it stayed there. But during that time, and throughout the year, four people will die each day from an overdose in Scotland and twelve in England and Wales. The saying ‘you keep talking, we keep dying ‘, is often used within the drug reform community and it is as true today as it has been for decades. I hoped that a recent report from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee which consists of MPs from 4 parties, of which 3 are SNP, 5 Conservative, 2 Labour and 1 Liberal Democrat, would get a fair hearing from the UK government but it has been swatted away and treated with utter disdain.
The UK Government, and that is where the failed policy sits, considers illegal drugs as a criminal matter and the consumption of them as a lifestyle choice and therefore people breaking the law should be treated as criminals and tried as such. And a lot of people would agree, and a lot of those people consume alcohol. The difference in the perception of illegal drug use compared to consumption of legal alcohol, allows us to stigmatise illegal drug users and then isolate and persecute them. The often-repeated image is of people injecting in filthy conditions, sharing needles, contracting related illnesses and dying. And yet when a solution to that scenario is brought forward in the shape of a safe consumption room, the UK Government refuse point blank to even consider it. They say such a thing condones drug use and they can’t be part of that. The truth is that safe drug consumption facilities, save lives, encourage people into care, provides support for rough sleepers and helps those with an addiction. The people supporting such ventures treat problematic drug use as a health issue, not a criminal justice one. The irony being that successful drug consumption rooms result in a reduction of crime too. The Home Office is being presented with a ‘win win’ solution but their blinkered ‘hit them hard’ mentality along with an unhealthy sprinkling of arrogance and hubris leaves them incapable of anything resembling self-criticism or analytical thought.
The recent introduction of a mobile drug consumption room in Glasgow by Peter Krykant was seen by many as a much-needed light at the end of a very long dark tunnel. Unfortunately, it has already been forced off the road once due to a perceived insurance problem but thankfully through Peter’s perseverance that has been rectified. I am of the opinion that the UK Home Office has spent more time and effort trying to prevent such establishments than it has ever spent trying to understand the need for them in the first place.
The UK government have said,” We want to do all that we can to stop people having access to drugs that could ultimately kill them”. But alcohol is marketed and sold legally and because of that the quality of the product can be guaranteed, people use it in social settings and the UK Government took £10 billion off the top in tax last year. We have issues with alcohol abuse but the mixed messaging from the UK Government is that one is good and the other evil. Which simply isn’t true. Drugs can damage you, alcohol is a drug and the UK parliament decided in 1971 what ones were illegal but not based on their ability to harm otherwise alcohol would never be legal.
And while the Home Office refuse safe drug consumption rooms the licences required to operate in the UK, the Houses of Parliament has its own wide array of consumption rooms, 16 bars and restaurants where alcohol is subsidised and available to MPs during the working day. The hypocrisy is staggering and so are some of the MPs. Your local pub, is a safe drug consumption room, so is any high street coffee shop and all smoking shelters. It just depends on your drug of choice and your attitude towards consumption in the first place.
Prior to 1968 we had, what was known as, the ‘British System’. It was a tolerant, supportive system which grew out of an inquiry into addiction in 1926. The ‘British System’ permitted any doctor to supply heroin, morphine, cocaine and other drugs to those who were dependent upon them. In the 1950s the USA tried to impose global heroin prohibition. Under pressure from the British medical profession the U.K. parliament did not follow the USAs lead. But they were not minded to taking ‘no’ for an answer and just as today when we can see the U.K. being steered towards lower food standards, back in 1971 at the behest of the USA we accepted lower standards of drugs legislation. One outcome has been a lack of medical research into psychedelic drugs. Nearly 50 years later the benefits of Psilocybin (naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms) are being revisited and understood. But 50 years, when we could have been producing good research, have been wasted and we are just beginning to play catch up. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 years of age in the U.K. and Psilocybin has a role to play in addressing that – and recent research appears to show that psilocybin can be used to help decrease the severity of depression and suicidal thoughts. But this research would be easier if the Home Office would reassign psilocybin as a schedule two drug.
Unfortunately, many people have adopted an attitude that restricts their ability to accept that humans have been taking drugs for thousands of years and we are not about to stop. The job of MPs should be to make it as safe as possible and then facilitate engagement with users to ease the pain and suffering that many are experiencing. While we continue to isolate and stigmatise, the problem will only get worse and no amount of criminal charges or prison time served will reduce the volume and variety of drugs available on our streets today.
It’s time to take a long hard look at the 1971 misuse of drugs act, are we misinterpreting it? Can we use it better or do we need to change it? One thing is for sure it is time to treat all addictions as health matters and safe drug consumption rooms would be a good place to start to reform our drugs policies and our attitude toward them.
Ronnie Cowan MP (Inverclyde)
Vice-chair of APPG on drug policy reform
A version of this article appeared on Politics Home website.