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