U.K. Drug Policy

“Every drug death is avoidable.” At least that was the stance of the U.K. House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee in 2019; before stating that Scotland was among the nations with the highest drug death rates in Europe. If this is the case, then it is obvious that current drug policies enacted by Westminster are not designed to meet the needs of modern Scottish society. This government document goes onto suggest that the standard, and more acceptable programmes of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and other means for the safe consumption of narcotics in a controlled environment should be fully implemented. Policies such as these still create a society where recreational drug use is stigmatised, while alcohol consumption remains a part of the acceptable way of life. It is ok to drink yourself to death, but smoking cannabis is left slightly stigmatised, and the use of other narcotics is something left for the hardened few users who use the strong and dangerous drugs. This stigmatisation of certain drugs as though they belong in tiers, with those using the most addictive and dangerous drugs receiving less compassion. While attending nursing school in the US, and as a pain management patient, I often heard healthcare professionals and students blame patients for their lack of willpower, not as though addiction was a disease. This left many in the medical profession who developed drug addictions to treat themselves and discontinue using without any support. How do you break an addiction without support? The short answer is that this is a seemingly insurmountable task, that you’re alone, and seeking treatment will destroy a career. 

Growing up outside of Scotland, I was introduced to the world of drug use in Scotland through Trainspotting. The severity and desperation of the life that helped drive people into the arms of hardened drug use was brought to life through Ewan MacGregor’s famous scene, where he exclaims that being Scottish means that you are the scum of the Earth in a drug and poverty riddled land of squalor. The findings within the above government report show that the stereotype of heroin (or other opiates) use as being a near plague in Scotland has remained the case for decades. These findings are by no means exclusive to Scotland, with substance abuse—of all types—remaining an issue which impacts the entirety of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The issue of being allowed to set drug policy does not fall exclusively to the current devolved powers of the United Kingdom. United in drug stigma, and draconian policies that have Scots dyeing from drug use at a rate three times higher than the rest of the U.K. combined.

In a 2019 Guardian opinion piece, Prof. David Nutt flatly stated that he was sacked from their position as the head of the “government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs” for stating that the government’s position was politically motivated instead of health related concerns. A decade later, David’s replacement resigned from the same position for the same reasons, politically motivated interference over concern for the “Union’s” health concerns. Drug policy is derived from the most politically favourable position, not the health of the “Union” or its inhabitants. U.K. drug policy is based on political motivations, and not the health of the population. It should be abundantly clear that if any nation has been left flapping in the strong wind, Scotland has been left to its own, and there appears to be little hope for change sometime soon this side of independence. 

This brings us to an independent Scotland which can set its own drug policies. A study on syringe exchange programmes in the USA showed that for every dollar spent, $6 were saved in HIV prevention alone. Scotland can become independent, save money on how drugs are enforced and treated, while looking to the most ambitious and successful drug policies in Europe. Portugal has left Scotland the roadmap to becoming a more egalitarian society which enhances the lives of its inhabitants. 

In 2001, Portugal was a hotspot for the worst problematic drug users in Europe. The nation was at a point where it was obvious that radical change and innovative policies were desperately needed. Widely condemned by other nations, Portugal went through with a policy of decriminalisation of what was considered to be a “personal use” supply of drugs. After a period of adjustment and experimentation by some who wanted to try something new, the drug problem in Portugal declined. This decline in problematic drug use was a part of both policy and social changes, which allowed for those with drug problems to seek help without fear of being punished. The switch from criminalisation to a healthcare narrative allowed the approach to be so successful. The ability to seek treatment without the fear of being punished—along with many other factors—allowed for those who wished to seek help to receive the help they desperately needed. After 20-years of drug policy reform, there seems to be little looking backwards to the days of criminalisation and punishment. 

When I first visited Colorado after they legalisation of recreational cannabis, the sales tax—added to the price unlike included VAT—was set at a whopping 28%, but this did not stop the successful new market which generated new revenue for the state. Other states have followed with varying laws, and Oregon recently decriminalised psilocybin—the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms—for modern research into the ability of these substances to treat a wide range of mental health issues. (Maybe just the tax, showing a source of revenue to be put back to use for the betterment of the population).

With Scottish elections just a few days away on 06 May, 2021, the nation is at a point where it can move forward with so many policies which will enrich the lives of those living here. A chance to forge a new path, with human rights and dignity at the center of its society is within reach. There is a lot of reform remaining, but the evidence that a drug policy which prevents the stigmatisation of those who choose to use such substances has been overwhelmingly shown to be beneficial to every member of society. The obvious answer to how Scotland can reach this goal is through independence and the freedom to set policy free from the constraints of an umbrella government that is seemingly set to ensure that the current status quo remains in place.

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