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Sturgeon’s drugs shame The SNP is blaming Westminster for a scandal of its own making

A homeless person in Glasgow (ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A homeless person in Glasgow (ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)


August 5, 2021   6 mins

It is hard to explain just how bad Scotland’s drug deaths epidemic is. In 2020 there were 1,339 in a country of just five and a half million people. Comparison helps: in Holland, the death rate is 18 per million; in Ireland it is 43 per million; in the whole of the UK it is 76 per million; in Scotland, it is 295 per million. Scotland’s drug deaths have more than doubled since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister seven years ago and nearly tripled since her party took office — when the health minister in charge of the issue was, it’s worth noting, a certain Ms Sturgeon.

This week, the roll call of substance abuse fatalities during the SNP’s period of government is set to hit 10,000. That’s more than the number of people killed in Hurricane Katrina, or who perished as the Titanic went down. More than those killed at Pearl Harbor, in 9/11 or during the 7/7 London or Manchester arena attacks — more than British troops killed at the charge of the Light Brigade. It is more than the number of people killed in the Blantyre mining disaster or the Dunblane Massacre or the Lockerbie bombing. In fact, it is more than all ten of these events combined. And yet, while each of these losses of life have been faithfully recorded in our history books, there has been no equivalent recognition or examination of the current unfolding tragedy.

Why? Because of the people who are dying. According to the national figures, people in the most deprived parts of the country were 18 times more likely to have a drug-related death than those in the least deprived. The poor. The marginalised. The people who don’t vote.

But these people aren’t just statistics. Every death is a person with a story and loved ones mourning their loss. Bryan Hogg died in 2019 from street valium abuse. He was 29 years old and not long out of prison. His mum, Sandra Mackin, says the system failed him. “The politicians don’t care — it’s just another number to them. I think my boy was failed. After he died nothing was done — there was supposed to be an investigation. He had a wee boy and now he has to live without his dad.”

During May’s Scottish elections, Nicola Sturgeon was tackled on the issue and admitted her government had “taken its eye off the ball”. Public Health Scotland says that “every drugs-related death is preventable” and “quality treatment options” are “essential”. But as deaths have spiralled, funding has been cut and treatment options have narrowed. Over the first 12 years of the SNP’s time in office, funding to Scotland’s drug and alcohol services was cut by more than half. For those trying to pull themselves out of their addiction and get better, it’s had a devastating effect.

Scotland has some of the best residential rehabilitation facilities in Europe. So good, in fact, that Dutch authorities and insurers pay to place patients in facilities such as the Castle Craig hospital in the Scottish Borders. In 2002, Castle Craig admitted 257 patients funded by the NHS; in 2019, the number dropped to just five. There’s no shortage of demand for services, but they aren’t accessible to the Scots most in need. Currently a quarter of Castle Craig’s places are being filled by Dutch patients, with most of the remainder being funded privately or via health insurance.

Meanwhile Glasgow’s largest residential rehab centre, Phoenix Futures, was forced to abruptly cut its number of beds from 54 to just 14 in 2019, after a Government tender was revoked. The Mungo Foundation’s Cothrom Eile service — in Nicola Sturgeon’s own Glasgow constituency — was forced to close its doors completely in 2019 due to funding cuts.

Those who have benefitted from such services are concerned at their closure. When Bruce Munro started at Phoenix Futures he was “eight stone and taking food from bins and begging to fund a drug habit — I didn’t feel part of society”. He had been abusing substances for more than 20 years, becoming homeless and suffering mental health problems. After five months of rehab, he was ready to move into supported accommodation. “To have only 14 beds for a city the size of Glasgow is disgraceful. I think this model works for me because it’s not just about putting down the drugs. You are getting therapy, bereavement and trauma counselling rather than just putting the drugs down, because that’s the easy part.”

The outcry over these cuts — and the spiralling death toll which has accompanied them — forced the Scottish government into action in January. As well as reversing some of the funding cuts, Nicola Sturgeon established a Drugs Death Task Force and appointed a minister to directly oversee the issue. But huge question marks remain: there has been little change of direction in policy that has spectacularly failed over the last 14 years.

Dr Neil McKeganey, Director of the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow, worries ministers are intent on just doing more of the same. “We have the same people advising the same government year after year, with no evident impact on the number of drugs deaths and no real accountability.” Dr McKeganey has repeatedly advised ministers and officials to better support residential rehabilitation —

“only to be told that their preference is for methadone and now benzodiazepine prescribing. That methadone is implicated in 53% of Scottish drugs deaths and benzodiazepines in 74%, should tell even the most ardent refusenik of the importance of abstinence-based treatments that prescribing addictive drugs is part of the problem — not part of the solution.”

CEO of the charity Faces and Voices of Recovery, Anne Marie Ward is more blunt: “The Drugs Death Task Force insists on pursuing the same failed options that got us into this mess.” She insists “we need the Scottish Government to start properly funding rehabilitation and recovery programmes”. The Scottish Government currently funds just 13% of the residential rehab places in Scotland (even Universal Credit funds twice as many) and their own figures show waiting times of up to year.

Of course, the barrage of criticism which has accompanied its sustained failure has prompted the SNP to hit out, trying to switch blame. The SNP has long campaigned to introduce consumption rooms — also known as shooting galleries — where addicts can access clean needles and inject in a safe environment. But the Scottish Parliament does not have the legislative power to introduce them — that is reserved for Westminster, and the UK Government does not support the policy.

When the record drug death figures were announced last week, SNP members were quick to point the finger south. Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that “we will continue to argue for reform of drugs law, which is not currently within our power” while Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard stated that “major changes in UK law [are] required to really tackle the problem.”

Pretty shameless stuff, as well as being self-incriminating. On Tuesday, England and Wales released their drugs death figures, both now five times less than the Scottish rate. Pointing out that the laws are exactly the same on both sides of the border indicates that some other factor or combination of factors is to blame for the enormous discrepancy. As Anne Marie Ward has previously stated: “Bluntly, the obsession with drug consumption rooms (DCRs) is making it inevitable that more people in Scotland will die from addiction. DCRs are the same silver bullet trope I’ve heard for 30 years.”

A public health emergency that has built up over many years is not about to be fixed by a stroke of a legislator’s pen, and it is dishonest for those in charge to pretend otherwise. Still, even ideas with limited impact are something the UK government should be prepared to discuss with their SNP counterparts. The people being killed are UK citizens, too.

The truth is both complicated and mundane. We need better data and analysis of those who have died and the factors contributing to those deaths; we need earlier interventions, a number of different pathways, and joined-up support — so those dropping out of treatment or switching between areas or options are not lost in the system. We need to review the extent to which “stabilising” drugs such as methadone and benzodiazepines are prescribed and what the patient journey looks like once a more stable living situation is achieved.

Yes, replacing the funding that the Scottish Government has cut over the years is important — but only if it is directed well. Residential rehab will not be the best option for everyone, but it needs to be available and attainable for those who would benefit from it.

The hard work of policy development and service delivery is the only thing that will start to unpick the thousands of individual human tragedies that led us here. Unfortunately, this work is unglamorous. Until now, there hasn’t been much incentive for the SNP to do it. It has taken 14 years and nearly ten thousand deaths for the Scottish Government to be shamed into acting on drugs deaths. And now the party is wasting time and energy on glib finger-pointing. The country is watching, and waiting.


Baroness Davidson is a Tory peer and former Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

RuthDavidsonPC

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

The SNP’s modus operandi seems to be:
Insisting that independence is the answer to everything.
Ensuring that it’s always just out of reach.

The media seems to be OK with this.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

And in the autumn we are going to be treated with another independence push. Something really to be looking forward to.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I wouldn’t concern yourself with it. They’re nominally a nationalist party. Some of the sadder members actually expect them to go through the motions every now and then, but it’s just theatre for the foot soldiers. It’s like when the Queen visits troops — nobody actually expects her to lead them into battle. Sturgeon would probably wet herself if Johnson offered her a section 30 order.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

I know that, but still, it is never ending.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago

The drugs problem is eating the West from within. Has been for years. It’s among a number of issues destroying a great civilisation that our predecessors preserved sometimes with their own lives, often putting their personal safety on the line and enduring actual, real austerity for a number of years afterwards. I just cannot bring myself to agree with relaxing legislation around this, even though it seems to be the only game in town.
Somewhere along the line during the past 50 years, we’ve replaced the dignity of labour, family structures and total freedom of thought, expression and respect for the peaceful pursuit of a religion of one’s choice – with something that I cannot begin to comprehend.
It’s actually accelerating during CoVid. I have no answers to this. Nobody in power seems to. This can only end badly for my children. It breaks my heart.
And thanks to the gift of devolution, here we are, as with Covid, reducing the whole thing to an inter-regional p****** contest based on dodgy information and a blame game.
Whilst the bodies and ambitions of young people “pile high in their thousands”.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Baaaa

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

an honest response

John McGibbon
John McGibbon
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

I watched Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” movie this week, it reminded me of Malcolm X’s belief that problems within the black community (but surely applies to all) needed members of the community to put down the bottle, get off drugs, get a job and take responsibility for the children they fathered before things could improve. Here we are half a century on you make the same comment in essence.
But for many, especially on the left, including the Nationalists in Scotland, the answer is not this, rather it’s to consider the community as victims and someone else is to blame.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

When Sturgeon is finally kicked out she will have to live with the shame of what she has done to Scotland for the rest of her life and it will be left to others to pick up the pieces.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

“she will have to live with the shame of what she has done to Scotland”

What has she done to Scotland, exactly, for better or worse? Any example will do. Really, any at all…

Edit:
OK, I was trying to be too clever for my own good. Scroll down for a follow up comment that explains this one better.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Er, 10,000 drugs deaths maybe …

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Sure. Along with rates of drug deaths: an education system that has slipped in world rankings, especially in reading maths and science; the ridiculous ‘named person’ scheme (currently on hold) that sought to appoint a state snooper for every child; draconian hate speech legislation; higher education policies that saw EU students access Scottish universities for free (until Brexit) while Scottish student numbers were capped and other UK students paid ÂŁ9k PA; fewer school leavers from less affluent backgrounds than other parts of the UK going on to tertiary education (then disguising this with stats based on area rather than actual family income); wasteful NHS policies such as free prescriptions with no means testing; minimum alcohol pricing and a ban on off sales outside of 10 am/10 pm. I could continue. Some of these were begun during the Salmond years, but all SNP policies.
At least she’s unlikely to ascend to the House of Lords when she’s done with being FM. Contrition equally unlikely, however.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

To me, the article precisely answers your question. Can you not see that?

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Not really, or if you like in a way.
The SNP has done nothing at all after the first few days of Salmond’s tenure, and when the try to do something, they make things worse.
So if you ask what she has actually done, is probably mostly acts of omission.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I agree to some extent, but wouldn’t underestimate the damage of some of these policies.

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

You are assuming that she has a conscience. That’s brave of you.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

My understanding is that she will not be staying in Scotland in the long term?

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

Excellent article, with many actual facts and rational arguments, and no angry argy-bargy. I have little hope that the Scottish Government will listen, but gradually more people will listen and public pressure will grow.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

in the whole of the UK it is 76 per million; in Scotland, it is 295 per million

Actually even this understates the relative size of Scotland’s problem by making it look like Scotland’s death rate is only 3.9 times worse than the UK.
In fact that UK rate of 76 per million itself includes Scotland. It works out at about 5,065 deaths for the whole UK. Take away Scotland’s 1,339, and you’re left with 61 per million in the rest of the UK excluding Scotland.
So Scotland’s rate is not 3.9 times worse than the UK, because the UK figure is skewed upwards by having Scotland’s figure in there. It’s worse. Scotland’s incidence of drug deaths is in fact 4.8 times higher than the rest of the UK.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

The SNP have very little focus in government, all relating to their own power and control, the rest such as education and these poor souls of drug abuse are are callously forgotten and side-lined despite the consequences.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

Not sure Scotland’s cops & politicians are as integrated into the drugs trade as England’s and N Ireland’s and this may make it easier to reduce harm in future. Whatever methods used you’ll never eradicate all harms. Shooting galleries may reduce harms from addiction but do nothing to get people clean and are a magnet for dealers (and cops). Drugs are such fun there will always be new users, many become addicts. When i volunteered for an addiction charity we got a success rate (clean for 5 yrs plus) of about 1:20 via meetings, buddying systems and using what little health and social care resources we could find. That rate is way better than NHS/Private rehab or prison. Anyone unlucky enough to get snared by the drugs of addiction – Opiates/Benzos/Alcohol is seen as deserving their fate and used as a political football. It is in Ruth Davidson’s parties interest to see Sturgeon floundering with the drugs problem and its in SNP’s interest to blame the English. Its enough to make you want to get spannered!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Mass drug addiction is not because the drugs, it is because the destroyed culture of the addicts in 90% of the cases. Most addicts of the cheap drugs – they are lost people. No hope, no future, no love, no socially healthy family to care, no good job, no hope of a good job, of a decent apartment, a car, girlfriend, holidays and all the stuff which makes life worth getting out of bed for –

They are desperate in desperation as they have no chance of a good life, they are a wrecked culture, they are the underclass. Jail, poverty, aggression, anger, always insecurity of everything, always boring, always worrying always lonely, and NO future…. Rehab does not cure that. A time machine is the only thing which could – one which had their parents married, the father working and home in the evening, being made to pay attrition in school, some love, some hobbies and sports and outlets with friends – community, feeling of being part of something.

Instead they were welfare underclass with streams of violent men in the house – crime, violence, drugs, drink, and fear and loneliness, abuse, and depression… That is your welfare Trap. That is what you have done with your non-judgement Liberalism.

Phillip Bailey
Phillip Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As precise a summary of the true heart of this problem as I’ve ever seen. Grim. Heart-breaking even. But undoubtedly true…

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’m sure what you say is true, but then how does one account for the numerous addicts and alcoholics from privileged backgrounds. Any AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting will have a wide range of backgrounds.

Julian Rigg
Julian Rigg
2 years ago

In the 2019 election, the SNP received 45% of the vote and won 48 out of 59 seats. Nearly half of Scotland supports Sturgeon despite being mediocre at best. Drug addiction, together with obesity, is an unwinnable war. So why should they “feel the shame”?
We should be focused on prevention because the “cure” is obviously too expensive. But prevention would cut out “big pharma” and we know who runs healthcare these days.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Rigg

Quite so!

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
2 years ago

In addition to an astronomical drug death rate, Scotland is one of the few countries in the developed world with falling life expectancy, where disadvantaged men die up to 6 years earlier than women.
Sturgeon’s flagship health initiative last year was … free women’s sanitary products.
The simplest way to solve the drug problem in Scotland would be to add it to the extensive list of “woman’s grievances” actively curated by this profoundly dysfunctional Scottish Regional Assembly.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Lyon
Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

10,000 is not the only tragedy. Not all users have died. If we guesstimate 1 death in 15, that’s the running social problem, not the dead. Sturgeon & co may be guilty but they will never be punished. Westminster and the film industry ‘drugs are cool’ luvvies are guilty, of promoting this Lord of the flies operation up north. I expect the crime, alcohol and diet problem figures put drugs in the shade. If 10,000 Kent beach immigrants are a headline now wait until Independence and the mass exodus south. Never let the left anywhere the bridge, or the engine room for that matter.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

I’ve seen the problem of Scotland being played out with other people elsewhere in the world. Paying people to stay in places that can’t offer jobs, it can be Native Americans in reservations, white Americans in the rust belt, Black Americans in Detroit, Frenchmen close to the border of Belgium and Luxemburg in their own “rust belt”,the fishing village of Rabo de Peixe in SĂŁo Miguel’s Island of Azores Portugal. The result is always the same, hopelessness. State dependency isn’t a substitute to work. Many make an excellent living out of it, police forces, prison wardens, all manner of social workers and NGOs, it’s a triving industry, the worst the better for these parasites.

Hubert Knobscratch
Hubert Knobscratch
2 years ago

10,000 deaths in 14 years in a country of 5.5 million is a terrible statistic. It’s surely at the stage where everyone must know someone who has fallen to drugs and complications of drugs? This number doesn’t include those who are hardly compos mentis as of today.
If it is SNP incompetence, (who knows?) I don’t see how having the SNP still in charge and appointing committees/task forces to look into it will solve any problems. The answer said committee has to come up with will be spelled out long before they start.
“We have the same people advising the same government year after year, with no evident impact on the number of drugs deaths and no real accountability.” As is so often the case.
I fear relaxing drug laws is the only answer to remove the criminal element, but I also fear it would lead to increased usage.
As Ruth D has noted, better statistics would be a welcome start, as once the data is in, it becomes obvious some more questions should have been asked.
Tough one
 and I don’t envy any politician trying to pick a path forward through it all. 

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Not necessarily would everyone know someone who has fallen to drugs.
The numbers are very concentrated in the SNP strongholds around Glasgow, Ayrshire and Dundee.
Ruth Davidson notwithstanding, there is very little leadership on alternative policies coming from outwith the SNP and the preferred solutions in those areas seem to be “more SNP”.

brian.stanley
brian.stanley
2 years ago

As with every contentious issue, the SNP’s immediate go to response is “It’s the UK Government/Westminster that is to blame”. The Government’s response is invariably timid or silent, presumably so as not to alienate Unionist support?

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
2 years ago

Government failure. Again. Or even, still.
How about abandoning a ‘government solution’ (aka always more of other people’s money) and replacing it all with private charity. Ms Davidson could get behind that and appeals to charitable donations.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

The queen of hearts (Alice in wonderland) is only interested in her own career anyway….

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

???

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago

If only Ruth Davison could have been persuaded to be a Westminster MP and lead the Conservative Party.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

What I like in this article: the idea that we need treatment to be geared towards abstinence from drugs, and that we need to use a broad approach to this rather than “just say no”.
What I don’t like about this article: the idea that when someone dies of an overdose it is because “the system failed them” or “the government should spend more money on the problem”.
This misses the larger societal issues. 50 years ago the government spent very little or no money on drug rehab, and very few people died of overdoses. Where did talk of personal responsibility go? What is the role of family and societal breakdown? Loneliness? Chronic welfarism? Rise of the nanny state and disempowering of the individual?
Yes, the state can do better, but even a much larger nanny-state can’t protect drug addicts who are like moths flying for the headlights of cars.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

I’ll bet if I went through these figures I would find that the issue is not nearly so black and white and “SNP Bad” as Davidson has presented it — lies, damned lies and statistics — but that would require me defending the SNP, which I refuse to do. Perhaps if they were a nationalist party…

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

 No
 I think it is just as likely that the situation is worse.
When I worked in Public health we were always most concerned if our indicators even remotely started creeping towards those of Scotland!
Remember, Scotland’s health status has historically been appalling, surely here was a chance for the SNP to improve Scotland’s position by pulling it up the health education and economy leagues tables.
Here was an opportunity for them to earn the trust of the people of Scotland because if they had succeeded in bringing about such improvements, they would have laid a firm and meaningful platform upon which to take their independence agenda forward.
But sadly, the SNP, as other comments have indicated, is merely a single-issue Party and most things have got worse.
The SNP, their Leader, are akin to a psychopathic a medieval King willing to sacrifice a large part of his army and many of his subjects to win a Land. Even if victory leaves half that land burnt to the ground, so scorched to ashes that it will take generations to restore to fruitfulness.
The SNP just charge the enemy cannons headlong, uncaring of what is to the left or right, just take the battery. If they ever achieve their blinkered aim the clock will be turned back two millennia, echoing back to when the mighty Roman Empire just decided to build a wall and left those to its north to their own ends, in a cold wet, gloomy land at the extremities of the known world
 

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

It may sound strange to you, but if the SNP WERE as you described, I would support them. They are NOT a single issue party. THAT’S the problem. They are a modern, “progressive”, far left party and it’s their social politics that’s killing Scotland, not their nationalism, of which they possess precisely nothing. It’s their leftism that the poison, in Scotland as everywhere else.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

Fair enough…
I was being a bit tongue in cheek, as many folk increasingly fail to take things North of the Wall seriously as they just despair of it, other than when they are bored of Dads Army repeats and tune in for a laugh when the Wee-One takes to the stage for her Covid updates.
… so you mean the SNP did try and failed ????
…what about – SNP a Party of intense nationalism, mass appeal and dictatorial rule… what does that give you ?

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Interesting take.
To me they are totally uninterested in the tedious grit of day-to-day governing.
They should be a pressure group, then they would be great. Instead they are bogged down by all this tedious stuff they simply don’t care about. Alas, they are stuck because they keep being voted in despite their very best effort, a bit like that gag from Father Ted where Ireland enlisted Father Dougal to try and lose the eurosong contest. Mind you, they are not short of Dougals either …

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X