"The System is Internally Broken": Scotland's shocking drug deaths show a rethink is needed

With Scottish drug deaths rising year on year, Alastair Lockhart talks to activist Peter Krykant about how policy fails drug users

Photo by Matthew T Rader from Pexels

The news that Scotland recorded the worst level of drug-related deaths in Europe for the sixth year in a row may not be entirely surprising, but it is no less shocking. Deaths related to drug overdoses and unsafe using saw a yawning gap between Scotland and the rest of the continent. 1,264 such deaths were recorded: equal to 295 deaths per million of population, more than three times the number of second-placed Sweden.

These appalling figures represent a social crisis and call for a total rethink of both policy and attitudes to drug addiction. The resignation of Scotland’s public health minister less than a week after the statistics were released is an admission that things have to change, but such a change must be truly drastic to curb this grim trend.

The UK and Scottish governments have resorted to pointing fingers at one another over the crisis, but it is clear that both share a responsibility for spiralling drug deaths over the past decade. The issue is by no means confined to Scotland either, but rather is the most obvious and significant symptom of the disastrous ‘war on drugs policy’ enacted by the UK and most western countries for the past 50 years.

The wholesale treatment of drug users as criminals to be condemned and imprisoned has been in place in the UK since the introduction of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs bill. This antiquated act still serves as the basis of UK drug enforcement, despite mounting evidence of its flawed assumptions and ham-fisted solutions. Since the bill ushered in the UK’s war on drugs, billions of pounds of public money have been spent, drugs have become more easily accessible, ‘county lines’ drug smuggling has soared, and levels of drug use have hardly changed.

Half a century of enforcing the same ineffective drugs policy and expecting different results is patently absurd. The electoral expediency of such an approach is obvious; it is simply too easy to present a political party as being ‘tough on crime’ by criminalising drug users despite manifest evidence that doing so only aggravates the issue of individual users while doing nothing to take drugs off the streets. 

In reality, if the UK government really wants to prevent high levels of drug-related deaths and aid people in addiction it is not an issue of treating drug addicts as criminals, but offering a means of alleviating addiction, or at least limiting the chance of their death. This is not a novel idea. Safe consumption facilities – controlled environments for drug-taking under medical supervision – are used in countries such as Denmark and Canada. Portugal, meanwhile, decreased deaths caused by drugs by a factor of five in just over ten years after decriminalising drug use in 2001. 

Peter Krykant opened a mobile safe consumption facility in Glasgow Photo: Adam Marikar from Unsplash

In 2016 there was talk of opening a safe consumption facility in Glasgow, allowing drugs such as heroin to be taken with a far lower risk to life. Since 2008, the Scottish government has sought to treat the drugs crisis as a health, rather than criminal, issue. However, this has not been backed by a substantive change to policy. 

Drugs activist Peter Krykant set up Scotland’s first mobile overdose prevention centre in August 2020 for the safe and monitored taking of drugs. Krykant told Meridian that such centres are needed to curb drug deaths in the face of inadequate government policies.  

“The system is internally broken,” he said, “we keep trying to restructure it and do things slightly differently but actually it needs completely overhauled.” Krykant argues that the key factor in preventing Scotland’s spiralling drug deaths is to get more people into treatment (less than 40% of problematic users are) and to cut down on the bureaucracy ensnaring those seeking help.

“The system is internally broken… it needs completely overhauled”

When an individual approaches their doctor seeking assistance with drug addiction, he says, “their GP will then send them to the third sector charity organisation in that area… when they get to that second assessment,… they then assess them but they cannot prescribe [drug substitutes]… it’s absolutely ridiculous – that bottleneck system is where people are dropping out.” 

This arduous process deters many seeking a way out of their addiction, and the lack of action in aiding the process in recent years has led to more people at risk of drug-related deaths. “We’ve actually gone backwards from 20 years ago,” says Krykant. “The shocking part about these statistics when they come out every year is that we have things that we can do to make this better that’s not being done.” 

“We’ve actually gone backwards from 20 years ago… we have things that we can do to make this better that’s not being done”

In November 2019, the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee recommended that Scotland move towards decriminalisation of drugs with an emphasis on the use of safe consumption facilities, and an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act. These suggestions were rejected by the UK government, who stated that there are no plans to facilitate safe using or make any changes to the present legislation. 

This appears a short-sighted scheme considering the demonstrable improvements of community-led, constructive approaches to drugs in other countries. Scotland has itself benefited from such a strategy in other areas. In 2005, the World Health Organisation dubbed Glasgow the ‘murder capital of Europe’; zero-tolerance crackdowns on the possession of knives did little to prevent their use and violence continued to rise. Desperate for an alternative approach, Glasgow City Council instead adopted Violence Reduction Units: a public health approach to knife crime which treated perpetrators not as criminals, but as symptoms of a social ill. The results were astounding – in  just over a decade Glasgow’s knife crime almost halved.

The parallels between knife crime and drug use are instructive in understanding how alleviating a public crisis begins by engaging with those most affected. By treating drug users not as criminals but as individuals to be aided first in preventing their deaths and second in providing a way out of the cycle of addiction, an enormous difference to society can be made.

This change to drug policy is needed throughout the UK, but it is desperately required in Scotland where the problem is at its most acute. The data released which showed Scotland’s drug deaths to be the worst in Europe for the sixth consecutive year online recorded those of 2019; it is highly unlikely that 2020 was any better. To approach this severe public health crisis the government, both central and devolved, must treat it as such. To save lives, a rethink is needed. A true understanding of addiction is needed. Most of all, serious action with a focus on individuals at a community level is needed. Without it, the same tragic story will be told again, and again, for years to come.