First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:03 pm on 9th March 2006.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 12:03 pm, 9th March 2006

To ask the First Minister whether, following the tragic death of Derek Doran, the Scottish Executive has any plans to review arrangements for the dispensing of methadone. (S2F-2169)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

First, on behalf of everyone, I express my sympathy to everyone affected by that tragic death. I hope that members will acknowledge that I cannot comment on the circumstances of the case, given that it is the subject of investigations.

Protection of the most vulnerable children in our society is our absolute priority and must be the absolute priority of Government. Events over recent weeks, including this and other shocking cases, reinforce my determination to ensure that children in drug-taking households are properly protected, safeguarded and supported.

The 1999 guidelines on the clinical management of drugs misuse and dependence, which cover the prescription of methadone, are about to be updated on a United Kingdom-wide basis. However, that updating will take some time to complete. Therefore, I have asked for an immediate review of the current guidelines here in Scotland and of their implementation locally.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

This is the second tragic death in East Lothian caused by methadone prescribed for somebody else. Does the First Minister accept that the real and fatal risk from what is supposed to be a cure for drug addiction is just not tolerable? Will he set two specific objectives for the review? The first is to ensure that the supply of prescription methadone is absolutely secure without the risk of it being sold on or used to spike people's drinks and without the risk of the kind of tragic accident that appears to have happened at Elphinstone. Secondly, does he agree that the objective must be the cure of addiction, not just the stabilisation of addicts on methadone?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Absolutely. In these situations, we have a duty to strike an appropriate balance between the medical judgment that is required of professionals, independent of politicians, and the need for Government to give clear guidelines and to ensure consistent implementation of them wherever possible. Although I cannot comment on the particular case until the current investigations are complete—we do not know what happened—I believe that there is a need to ensure that where methadone is being prescribed to be taken outside the pharmacy or surgery, there is a clear reason and justification for that.

Secondly, I believe that it is absolutely critical that where methadone or any other dangerous drug has been prescribed to be taken at home, or away from supervision, appropriate safety measures are in place to ensure that children—who can die not just from methadone but from a number of other things—are safe and secure. I also believe that a fundamental plank of our drugs policy must be not only to catch dealers, seize drugs and provide rehabilitation services, but to lead people to drug-free lifestyles. That must be our central objective in the discussions that I mentioned earlier to Annabel Goldie, on which I am happy to receive comments from any other member.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Does the First Minister agree that we should build on the inquiry into methadone use and widen its work by establishing a standing commission on the misuse of substances, including alcohol? We cannot judge our policies on drugs and alcohol without seeing them in the same light. We need a genuinely radical approach, because we have tried the same mixture of policies for more than 20 years—since the time when I was chair of the Scottish Drugs Forum—but nothing has improved. Surely we can say that the policies have failed and that we need better alternative ones.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

We need to be careful about being too comprehensive in describing it as failure. A number of people who work in various parts of the public and voluntary sectors in Scotland have made a difference in the area in recent years. We now know more about the problem in our society than ever before and—certainly in relation to the supply of drugs in Scotland—we are more effective than ever before. However, we cannot deal only with the supply of drugs; we must deal with demand as well.

I am not sure that a standing commission is the right answer, but I am certain that, in the discussions that we have, we should be willing to consider all suggestions. In doing that, we should build upon our strategies on both drugs and alcohol and strengthen them rather than simply dismiss them. I hope that, if we can agree on that as a basis, the work that Annabel Goldie and Margo MacDonald have done on the issue over a long period will be input to those discussions.