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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Tribalism fails us during drug death crisis

This opinion piece is about 2 years old

Scotland's third sector can play a crucial role in tackling our drug death emergency, says Craig Wilson

Through the din of Brexit and other long sizzling political issues, the news that Scotland has more drug deaths per capita than any European country has dominated national conversation in recent days.

Usually, in other subject areas, Scottish statistics hover only slightly above or below UK averages. Not so, this time. Drug fatalities in Scotland are a staggering 300% higher than the UK figure and 900% higher than the EU average – giving only the briefest sense of the scale of the problem the Scottish Government is now labelling “an emergency”.

It’s been known for many years that Scotland has its share of health problems and has never quite been able to shake the sick man of Europe image. Indeed, we have become immune to news that, as a nation, we drink too much, eat badly and are too fond of our sofas. But this news seems to have united opinion that matters are far worse than we thought and that something over and above the usual response is needed.

While tribalistic political responses are boring at the best of times; at the worst of times they become positively dangerous. Instead of receiving a rational response and reasoned debate, the issue quickly became a bit part player in the endless Punch and Judy show that Scottish politics seems determined to become.

Craig Wilson

legislation and money alone will not fix a societal issue which is tangled up with poverty and stigma

Craig Wilson

While recognising the scale of the problem, the Scottish Government quickly made clear that the real blame lay at the door of Downing Street. On the attack, opposition parties claimed it was SNP incompetency and focus on independence at fault. Both sides are wrong in their approach. The issues at hand are complex and offer no single explanation or solution. This instinctive retreat behind the sandbags of tribal politics does absolutely nothing to take us forward.

While drug policy is indeed not devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Government does have tools at its disposal and can still do much around sentencing policy, harm reduction and funding rehabilitation services.

On the other hand, opposition parties must surely recognise that when one part of the UK has a problem three times worse than any other part of the UK, power to deliver a tailored response is needed. It’s also important to remember that many of those who died this year are part of the so called Trainspotting generation, who started their journey in to problem drug use in an era when the Scottish Parliament didn’t even exist. This is a crisis that has been building up for years and there will be no easy or quick solutions.

The general response to this shocking news feels like it has come from a different age. Like during the 18th century gin craze, polite society clutches its pearls and demands decisive leadership to bring the numbers down and ‘solve’ the problem. This attitude and approach will not work, and legislation and money alone will not fix a societal issue which is tangled up with poverty and stigma.

Remarkably, I have heard precious few personal stories about the 1,200 tragic individuals who died a preventable death. I have learned little about the communities they lived in. I don’t understand how their family felt as they tried to help and I know nothing about their friends who – without the right support – might form part of next year’s spreadsheet data.

Without understanding this, public attitudes are unlikely to change and the individuals behind the statistics will remain (to many people) ‘junkies’, undeserving of anything other than time behind bars. In such an atmosphere, politicians will find it difficult to justify spending more money on assisting those who need it, or changing the law to allow services to work together.

Scotland’s third sector organisations have a crucial role to play in shaping social attitudes and, through our collective experience, the sector can allow people to better understand the reality of drug use, the impact on our communities and the needs of those who struggle with addiction on a daily basis. Support services like Addaction, and SFAD, offer powerful stories about recovery journeys and the challenges individuals face along the way.

If politicians can begin by setting their differences aside, the sector stands ready to provide the evidence, experience and support needed to tackle this emergency in coherent and serious way.

Craig Wilson is parliamentary public affairs officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.



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Lucille conway
about 2 years ago
What people are not understanding is that people with addictions don't wake up one day and decide they are going to be an addict. The majority of people have used drugs or alcohol to survive a trauma like abuse, mental physical or sexual. They were children when they started, normal age around 12-14 years and they were let down by society, failed by government, teachers, police, councils, neighbours and family friends. These children should have been able to talk to an adult and be listened to but they were not. Only now, after the Jimmy saville events have been proven, do we as a society, see what went on. Yet we cant seem to work out that the kids of the seventies and eighties have been damaged by the fact that we couldn't believe what was going on. What do we expect happened, do we honestly believe they just got on with it? Think about it, some did manage to continue with life, but most struggled, they discovered drugs and alcohol and realised that when they took these substances they didn't have to think about what happened, for a little while they could be normal. Then the substances stopped working and they moved on to other, stronger substances. Some had children, the life they were able to provide for their children was limited because they didn't do well at school, due to what they had been going through. By this time they were fully addicted and although did their best they provided their children with learned behaviour. It doesn't take a genius to work this out, if we all just think for a moment. Once the penny has dropped we can stop the stigma because, at the end of the day, if we treated our children right, as we try to do now, we may not be facing this crisis and all these deaths might not have happened. Also, these new figures do not include people who felt suicide was the only option and the life with addiction didn't allow for proper medical treatment for ailments which eventually took the life of that person. If you still cannot understand, try thinking how would you handle abuse and not being believed when you were a child. What would you have done?
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about 2 years ago
After heroine epidemic in the 80s we (the Netherlands) we came to the conclusion that small part of the society will be drug users, even after decades of prevention we still have part that become addicted. We accepted that and we give all drug users social houses, and that is there right anyway. If temperature get to low the police will take everybody(homeless of course) of the streets, that night it's forbidden to sleep outside for homeless people. Most of the time it's living on the streets that killed them.Be we have much bigger problem, halve of the dutch is addicted to xanax or some anti depression pill!