2007 - 2022

‘Emergency’ without urgency: drug deaths must end

“The abrupt sacking of drugs minister Joe FitzPatrick is a clear indictment of the government’s poor record, but it’s unlikely that the pre-election mini-reshuffle will bring about a genuine shift in approach and outcome.”

An English author who once lived on Jura wrote that political language consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”, identifying it as the art of bringing together words “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. This axiom bears out in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s high-profile declaration a year and a half ago of a “public health emergency” on drug deaths. Although the need for urgent action is clear, underscored by new figures revealing that 1,264 people died in Scotland as a result of drug misuse in 2019, a staggering 140 per cent increase from 2013 and a higher rate than almost anywhere else in Europe, the government’s ability and willingness to carry it through is in serious doubt. The abrupt sacking of drugs minister Joe FitzPatrick is a clear indictment of the government’s poor record and the absence of the urgency it promised last year and the record-breaking years before that, but it’s unlikely that the pre-election mini-reshuffle will bring about a genuine shift in approach and outcome.

The Scottish Government’s response to drug deaths has focused in large part on its campaign for drug consumption rooms (also called safe or supervised injection rooms). Inspired by their success in more than 70 cities around the world, a coalition of Glasgow City Council and various public agencies developed a proposal in 2016 for the opening of what would be the UK’s first-ever drug consumption room. When the UK government declined to devolve further powers to Holyrood to allow MSPs to establish a solid legal framework for the project, it was relegated to a form of purgatory, trapped in a war of words between an SNP-led government reluctant to push devolution to its boundaries and a Tory-led government obstinately opposed to making any further constitutional concessions. Nearly half a decade and thousands of deaths later, Scotland’s conversation about drugs has barely moved on, instead becoming increasingly occupied with this single issue.

This row has obscured the fact that the proposed facility in question was only ever aimed towards around 500 vulnerable people injecting drugs in public places in Glasgow city centre, a tiny fraction of the 11,900 “problem drug users” across the entire city, never mind the whole country. Bereft of a credible strategy to realise harm reduction measures on even this scale, Scotland’s political parties are even more distant from seriously exploring and tackling the social and economic roots of addiction – the cumulative impact of deindustrialisation, criminalisation and the latter-day era of austerity Britain. As progress stalls, new reports and task forces are held up as achievements in and of themselves, even as deaths continue their upward trend.

The mother of addiction

What most working class people in Scotland instinctively know – that addiction goes hand-in-hand with poverty and deprivation – has been confirmed by public health experts in countless studies. From the 1980s onwards, as the advent of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher led to sharp increases in unemployment and inequality, drug use in working class communities across the whole of Britain rose dramatically. In Scotland, the increase in drug-related deaths and other health inequalities was pronounced, particularly in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, thanks to a combination of historical deprivation, decades of disastrous Scottish Office economic policy choices and gentrification spearheaded by right-wing Labour council administrations. Criminal penalties associated with drug possession did little to prevent the rise; as Scottish police, prosecutors and courts handed out increasingly long sentences for personal possession of heroin, experts later noted that the “heavy-handed response of the police, courts and the medical establishment, in their interpretation of the law and other guidance, served only to send injecting drug use further underground”. This harsh treatment of drug users was part of a broader shift under Thatcher towards using criminal punishment to address social problems instead of increasing social provision, a philosophy which continues to shape penal policy now.

Though Thatcher left office more than three decades ago, the profound impact of Thatcherism has left a visible mark on drug death figures; most of those dying as a result of drug abuse now are old enough to have lived under Thatcher and many of them felt the consequences of her policies as they entered the workforce. This ‘generational cohort’ effect which broadly maps with the peak of the neoliberal revolution in the 1980s could materialise again. In 2017, a report by NHS Scotland and University of Glasgow researchers warned that “recent exposures to a more ‘flexible’ labour market and greater conditionality and sanctions in the social security system, particularly for young working-age adults, may in time lead to another cohort at high risk”. In other words, even before the deadly consequences of Thatcherism are fully felt, Tory rule today is digging graves for another generation through welfare sanctions, Universal Credit and zero hour contracts. The prospect of this being exacerbated even further by an inadequate economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic is deeply worrying.

In this context, even the most ambitious harm reduction measures such as heroin-assisted treatment, which was rolled out in Glasgow for the first time late last year, represent only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. While the Scottish Government’s national drugs strategy openly acknowledges the need to tackle “broader inequalities, including improving people’s quality of life, access to housing and employment”, writers such as Ewan Gibbs note that deindustrialisation has continued under its watch, with the devastating closures of the Caley and BiFab as stark examples; meanwhile, the SNP’s Growth Commission brazenly excluded trade unions altogether in the process of developing its notably conservative economic plan for an independent Scotland. Without being willing to embrace a more radical economic prospectus, the Scottish Government will continue to self-sabotage its already-limited ambition to “reduce” deaths.

Delivering change

There is scant evidence to suggest that the Holyrood and Westminster governments of today are any more likely to successfully intervene on drug-related deaths than they have been in the two decades since devolution, particularly as austerity bites into public sector budgets at both a local and national level. Services which struggled for funding in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, as cuts were passed down from Westminster to Holyrood to councils, remain underfunded. The Scottish Government has promised to invest £1 million in residential rehabilitation facilities, snubbing calls from the recovery sector for £20 million; mental health services, which play an important role in preventing drug abuse, have faced cuts and increasing demand. The SNP’s managerialism and constitutionalism has ruled out any meaningful challenge to Westminster’s authority over drug laws, for instance by appointing a radical Lord Advocate willing to end prosecutions under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a move which would push the boundaries of devolution and, in doing so, advance both the national debate on drugs and on independence. Its economic conservatism will do little for the most deprived parts of the country. But all of this can change if communities affected by drug use find a means of building and wielding their own political power, instead of leaving the subject to public health researchers and NGOs.

The most promising steps in this direction have been taken by Peter Krykant, who last year refitted a van to serve as a mobile supervised injection facility and deployed it on the streets of Glasgow at great personal risk. Drawing inspiration from similar campaigns of civil disobedience in Canada and Denmark which successfully changed the law in their respective countries, Krykant and his volunteers are now supporting a small number of vulnerable drug users while continuing to campaign for an official NHS facility. Now, in an important escalation of his campaign, Krykant has announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the Holyrood elections this May in his home constituency of Falkirk East. His pitch in a powerful article for The National yesterday, in which he openly identified himself as “the first candidate to run for the Scottish Parliament who has openly suffered from addiction leading to homelessness, trauma and despair”, promises a serious challenge to the status quo. On the one hand, as an independent candidate in a first-past-the-post election, he faces an uphill battle to be elected; on the other, his lack of party affiliation and his impressive record on a deeply-felt issue could well resonate with voters across party lines. He would not be the first fiercely independent MSP to be returned from Falkirk, with Dennis Canavan sent to Holyrood by voters in neighbouring Falkirk West with crushing majorities in the early 2000s. Even if he is not successful, his candidacy could prevent Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis from being obscured by the national question. Krykant himself links independence to pressing social problems here and now, arguing that independence is “inevitable” but that campaigners “must start answering the questions that were unanswered before” on social provision.

Irrespective of whether or not he wins, however, Krykant and his team of volunteers will not be able to end the harm of drugs in Scotland by themselves. There is a crucial role for the wider left to play in connecting the devastation of drug deaths with the struggle for jobs and quality public services, bridging those families campaigning for action on drug deaths on one side with trade unionists and others resisting deindustrialisation and austerity on the other – both often being drawn from the same communities. As well as widening support for workers on the back foot as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic bites, bringing the issue of drugs into the sphere of mass political activity will make demands for harm reduction, an end to criminalisation and a reversal of deindustrialisation into something tangible and urgent. With little to lose and everything to gain, there is no better time than now.


Comments (15)

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  1. David Somervell says:

    Hey, Mike – seems to be a problem with early truncation of this article. Can you paste in the rest?
    Terribly sad!

    1. Fixed David, apologies for the gremlins

    2. Blair says:

      The early part is a graphic picture. Your browser may need adjustment to view.

      The thought of drug deaths must end, conjure up and down the historical problems of mankind even unto death! Heavenly bid inequalities end! Either all deaths must end or we keep on fighting for survival.

      Will mankind ever learn?

      The WORD is the world is but just a stage, ready for all its Characters like You & Yours and Me & Mine and Their & Theirs.

      Now divided into two groups, one half Left & the other stuck Right it’s time to start thinking differently and start living in the real world both here and online.

      Wake up Scotland from this incessant nightmare of a lockdown and let the world see the real beauty our Heavenly country has never really changed since God created it in his dreams.

      Live life, constantly exploring the world you really live in, it’s your life and your story. Live the dream. My World is just a small part of your world where things come alive.

      ‘The Christina Project’, Scotland.

  2. Squigglypen says:

    An excellent article that shines a torch into dark corners. After your article I read about Peter Krykant. What a hero. We need him in parliament. Let’s hope Nicola Sturgeon listens. But of course the real problem?…the lack of control over our country. I well remember that bastard Thatcher and her red rose of England..excuse language but I couldn’t find another suitable word. She proudly talked of her red rose….and Scots STILL voted Tory. We have to get our country back from their claws. Thank you for that article….it shows clearly why you do not allow another country make decisions for you…and of course the tories with a small t delight in the reports from a corrupt media (excepting our National) that prove we should not vote SNP but stay safe with baroness Davison….in her ermine trimmed cloak. What other country on the planet vote to have foreigners/quislings run their country..answers on the back of a stamp. My usual shout UDI.

  3. Alistair Taylor says:

    Aye, UDI, Jesus, and heroin addi<ts. Give us a fuking break.
    Jump in a lake.
    Voting Tory was a big mistake.

    (more stream of <ons<iousness pish, from the wonky keyboard/ mend and make do/ the joys of frugality)

    Good arti<le. Thought provoking. And your man Peter Krykant is on to something. Good lu<k to him.
    If i was in S<otland right now i might even run as an independent <andidate in Moray, against the Tory Douglas Ross. (or Dross).
    However, i'm not. But i hope that the SNP run a strong <andidate. (Oh wait, maybe i have my MSP's and MP's mixed up… _)

    Anyway, drugs and addi<tions, al<ohol abuse, domesti< abuse, hopelessness, <rime, unemployment, despair, poverty, early death, et<, bloody et<.
    Same thing happened to the Indigenous peoples here in N Ameri<a. (and worldwide). Attempted <ultural geno<ide they <alled it here, and the govt of <anada apologized (for the residential s<hools and the attempt to "kill the indian"),
    Don't expe<t the Tories to apologize, ever. There will be no truth and re<on<iliation.

    Anyway, again, it is a huge topi<, not easily <overed in 2 paragraphs… But, time to <hange and improve and evolve. Get angry if need be. But also get <alm, and fo<us that anger into a useful good energy.
    All the best. Thank you for writing and publishing.

  4. Wul says:

    Krykant’s compassionate activism is showing up the SNP Government. Badly.

    They could use exactly the same tactic themselves to highlight the stupidity of Westminster making Glasgow’s drug laws and do some good at the same time.

    If the SNP believes that safe consumption spaces would improve the health of Scottish people, they should have the guts to go ahead and launch the initiative, without waiting for London’s “OK”.
    Challenge Westminster to intervene and try stopping us from helping our citizens in a way that is proven to work.

    Direct action which ignores Westminster’s “permission” would build support for what real, actual, self-governing countries can achieve. Let’s run this place as if people matter ( and fuck “The Market”).

    1. Blair says:

      Wul, Jesus was forsaken by God on the cross Hogmanay 999. The calendar reset failed & left everyone in the dark for 3 days. Leaving everyone cut off from Allah, God. I reset the clock when Allah Blair made a star-delta 3-phase bipolar digital power connection.
      On Hogmanay 1,999, the clock was reset by Christina, made by me, your old man Blair. You are now in Allah Blair 3. Unfortunately Mankind is still not in sync. Your internal bodyclock was affected by the Millennium Bug, your brain just couldn’t connect! Since Earth Year 2,000 mankind has been due an upgrade and a good service. Hence BREXIT. Dead units have already been recovered and reborn. These are your millennium generation all ready trained for the switchover. Once you have your upgrade you will become like me, 3-Phase in an uncorruptible body. Only your God is qualified to judge you because he too is aways learning from you about His last Trump!

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        I reset my mother’s clock today – the battery had run oot.

        1. Blair says:


          Just ensure that you put the battery in as required or you might find time going backwards. Your very own time machine!
          It could come in Handy this BREXIT Year, just make sure that you have God & Your FREE BREXITPASS, 4in MMXXII you will be free to travel anywhere, anytime. You will have complete freedom to choose or take The New Labour Way TO NY. You can get out of the Kingdom but withoot the pass+2 you cannie <um ba<k withoot <allin G-D, Jesus Christ.
          Past, Present, Future, the choice is yours but Wul be careful because you never know when your clock battery is going to give up & surely die. All ah's buddies arnie built tae last but wee Christ in a spirit rings Bell A 44-4times, God's Engineer, your McKanic s will get 2U through M. Small oor Time Master (He matters), he informs <HR 1st in a real spiritual way. She Trumps everyone, even the realDonald.

  5. Gavin says:

    A great article.
    The drug death numbers are disgraceful. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

    After all, Scotland has the worst life expectancy in Western Europe
    (https://www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-public-health-priorities/pages/2/ states that ‘In 2018, the average life expectancy at birth across Scotland was 81 years for females and 77 years for males’; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy shows that the Czech Republic is our nearest rival, with an overall life expectancy of 79.2)

    There are a lot of reasons for this, many touched on above.

    But 2 statistics are particularly shocking:

    – ‘The rate of breastfeeding in the UK is the lowest in the world’ (Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect.Lancet. 2016; 387: 475-490, as reported at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35438049), and ‘The proportion of babies ever breastfed in Scotland has been consistently and substantially lower than that achieved in England.’ (https://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Child-Health/Publications/2018-10-30/2018-10-30-Infant-Feeding-Report.pdf),
    So if Scotland becomes independent, it will have the lowest rate of breast feeding of any country in the world (probably the lowest of all time, and probably the lowest rate of breastfeeding of any population of mammals since mammals first evolved, 200 million years ago).

    – In 2016, (only) 13% of children aged 2-15 met the 5-a-day fruit and vegetables recommendations on the previous day, the proportion remaining relatively stable since 2008.

    With respect to health – the most important indicator of all – we are truly peerless, the very worst country in Western Europe.
    Why not just declare an all-encompassing ‘public health emergency’?

  6. SleepingDog says:

    If we are viewing drug deaths as a public health emergency, we should be including legal, illegal and quasi-legal substances, not just the banned killers from the Thatcher era. I really expected some reference to the current opioid crisis that may be coming over from the USA or other new trends, and some discussion of drugs and subcultures. And drug use does not just kill its users, but contributes to deaths of others as well. But anyway, deaths alone are a poor proxy for harm.

    There is an interesting treatment of a drug-based culture based on Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World in a television dramatisation on Sky One, where people self-medicate frequently to keep their worries smoothed away, and to conform to a social code which bans things like monogamy and privacy. The apparent rise in mental health problems amongst the young should be considered in the round, along with their patterns of taking or refusing drugs. And the current pandemic and climate crises, various social divisions, cultural exemplars, technological change and communications innovations could be factors in drug usage too.

    Of course, I think poverty and deprivation should be tackled regardless of whether they contribute to drug deaths or not. But if we wish for a more empathetic and enlightened society, we may be wishing for more second- and third-hand trauma as more people tune into the sufferings of others, including life more generally. So we need to find constructive ways of coping with trauma without resorting to drugs.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      @Sleeping Dog. How about Buddhism? (The Art of Living by Thi<h Nhat Hanh to be studied in s<hools?)
      And/or getting kids out into Nature. We have plenty of open spa<es. Let them roam. ("it's the great outdoors" as Tommy from Trainspotting said.)

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Alistair Taylor, you mean for coping with empathic trauma? Something more that Buddhism, perhaps (Thailand seems an unhealthy polity) and better than Scottish Nature (a dewilded desert even by European standards), but one could and the other should contribute to a good-life philosophy, indeed. Along with recovery of human agency and auto-channelled improvement (to counteract feelings of helplessness), I guess. And tearing down of material shields of excess and privilege (which can lead to ennui, amongst more serious negative effects) on the other hand.

        1. Alistair Taylor says:

          @sleeping dog. Aye. Whatever it takes really. Not one simple solution, really…

          I’ve been out of S<otland for a fair <hunk of my adult life, but whenever i am ba<k i often think, "what the hell is going on here?"
          Young Matthew, for example, begging in Paisley town <entre. S<ar in the middle of his palm where some drug dealers had drilled a hole through his hand. In the unlikely event you read this, Matthew, i hope that life has taken a turn for the better.

  7. Dan Linehan says:

    Someone should get rid of this Margaret Thatcher if she’s punting so much Heroin.

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