The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01416, in the name of Sandesh Gulhane, on a legal right to recovery. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons or to place an R in the chat function. I call Dr Gulhane to speak to and move the motion.
The on-going failure of successive Scottish National Party Administrations to tackle a spiralling drug addiction epidemic that is ruining countless lives is a national scandal. There were 1,339 drug deaths in Scotland in 2020, an increase of 5 per cent from 2019. Since 2007, the number of drug-related deaths has almost tripled. Scotland’s drug death rate is more than 3.5 times that of the United Kingdom as a whole and is higher than that of any other European country. People in our most socially deprived communities are 18 times as likely to die from drug-related deaths as those from affluent areas. Those are statistics, but every death is a person’s and a family’s world turned upside down.
Given those stark facts, after two decades of devolved government and 14 years of an SNP Administration, I cannot help but conclude that the Parliament has not yet grasped what drug addiction means—otherwise, we would have solutions by now. We sit in this iconic Parliament, which was once described as
“a tour de force of arts and crafts and quality without parallel in the last 100 years of British architecture”, and we are far removed from the lives of addicts in our communities, whom we have a duty to help.
When I listen to proposed solutions to our country’s shameful record on drugs, all I hear are aspirations that are based on a version of life success that means little to those outside these walls who are struggling with addiction. As a Glasgow general practitioner, let me tell members what success means to our fellow Scots who are living on the edge. Success is not simply stopping taking drugs; success is just waking up. Success is not not breaking the law to buy drugs; success is getting through the day without being abused.
One of my patients—let us call her Rose—started smoking as a young teenager before being offered cannabis. She got in with the wrong crowd at the age of around 13 or 14 and started taking cocaine and, eventually, heroin. What made Rose change track was an utter tragedy—she watched her best friend overdose and die in front of her. She knew that she was next unless she changed. She knew that she could not do that any more and survive.
She needed help and she had the courage to ask for it. Rose was lucky, because help was there at Hunter Street health centre in Glasgow’s Gallowgate. That centre brings together many of Glasgow’s homeless and health and social care services under one roof, alongside a dedicated GP service. Rose is now off drugs and holds down a job in Glasgow. She got there because of the all-round support that was in place. Rather than decriminalise drug use and make it a justice issue, we need to medicalise it and provide a joined-up approach across services that will support drug users’ recovery and give them a path to a new life.
Another patient of mine—let us call him Paul—was once a very heavy drug user and so overwhelmed with life that he attempted suicide. Thankfully, he has reduced his consumption and is now on the long road to recovery. That is what success looks like. Both Paul and Rose say that the key to success is the support services being ready to grasp the opportunity when someone first says, “Help. I want to stop.” That response must be quick.
People need, as soon as possible, to get on a pathway that includes help with housing, basic care, GP services and mental health counselling—all the elements that the Scottish Conservatives have set out in our right to recovery bill. We want to guarantee that everyone in our country who needs drug treatment can receive it. That is the cornerstone of a strategy to tackle our national scandal and to turn the tide of ever-increasing drug-related deaths. We want to provide all the appropriate treatment options that our country has at its disposal, so that those seeking help and their support team can have the best possible care plan. That is ambitious, because most of our communities do not have a Hunter Street. However, we need to do it—no ifs, no buts.
Rehabilitation requires medical service-led solutions—laws do not cure addiction. However, while we sit here, in our design award-winning chamber, let us have a think about not going down that route. What if we just tried decriminalisation? I know that the Government will say that what has been announced is not back-door decriminalisation, but the public perception is that it is, and that is what really counts. If we do not have in place a credible support and rehabilitation regime that is well planned and resourced, do we think that those who are suffering in our communities are going to be okay? We would not be able to cope if only 10 per cent of all drug users said that they wanted to quit tomorrow. Our fellow Scots, who are on the edge, need our help and we need to get working on this now. Practical action is much more progressive than simply passing legislation.
There are unintended consequences of decriminalising class A drugs. Drug use could actually increase, particularly among recreational drug users such as the weekend user. Not all drug users are the stereotype whom people think of. There are adults holding down jobs who use drugs such as cocaine from time to time, knowing that doing so is a criminal offence. We need to ask ourselves this question: if it is no longer illegal, are they going to stop, continue or even start using more?
We are dealing with one of Parliament’s most pressing matters, and that is well overdue. We are seeking to consult the Government on the Lord Advocate’s statement of 22 September. Given the importance and potential consequences of the Government’s position, we feel that our request is reasonable. We have given our debate time to the matter and we would like the Government to do the same.
We also seek a cross-party commitment to back our motion today, so that we can move to enshrine in law a right to recovery—a progressive, medical approach to Scotland’s humanitarian crisis. Let us act to rehabilitate the most vulnerable in our communities, and let us do that now.
Before I move the motion in my name, I declare an interest in that I am a practising doctor.
That the Parliament believes that record drug deaths in Scotland are a humanitarian crisis; further believes that progress in the rehabilitation and treatment of addiction in Scotland has been too slow; calls for a legal right to recovery to tackle Scotland’s ongoing drug deaths crisis with the urgency that it deserves; notes that the possession of class A drugs is a serious offence and should not be dealt with through warnings that seek “not criminalising” offenders; believes that the content of the Lord Advocate’s recent Ministerial Statement deserves proper consultation, and calls for the Scottish Government to set aside time to debate this matter in full.
It should come as no surprise that the Government cannot support the whole of the motion that has been lodged by the Conservatives. I have consistently acknowledged that we are facing a public health emergency. The loss of life from drug-related deaths is as heartbreaking as it is unacceptable, and I once again offer my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one and my continuing commitment to doing everything possible to turn the tide on drug-related deaths.
M y position is clear: this Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament should consider any proposal that is based on evidence and that can play a part in saving lives. That includes upholding the rights of individuals to recovery or treatment, whether that be through harm reduction or through recovery in communities or residential settings.
Last weekend, I spent time on the recovery walk in Perth with some absolutely amazing people who have achieved great things despite great adversity on their journeys through life. I strongly believe that supporting the Conservative motion today would be letting down all those people and many others, because it fails to recognise that addressing drug misuse has to be done through a public health approach.
I was actually talking about the Conservatives’ hysterical reaction to the Lord Advocate’s statement last week. With respect, if Mr Greene had perhaps paid attention to the many comments that I have made about Conservative calls about its right to recovery bill—which, interestingly, is now called that rather than a right to treatment bill; perhaps the reason for that will come out in the debate—he would know that I have always said that, once the bill has been published and I and others have had the opportunity to ensure that it will do what it says on the tin, I will give a view on it. I have an open mind about whether, at some point, we need to legislate.
The national mission that we have announced comes with an additional £250 million in funding and is driven by the rights that people already have—the rights to respect and healthcare and the human rights that this Government is strengthening through a new framework. The creation of a national care service will also be an opportunity to make those rights real, just as we are doing through our national mission. The work that is being done by the residential rehabilitation development working group will help us to increase capacity in rehab and improve services, including aftercare.
The introduction of medication-assisted treatment standards will help to ensure that people have immediate access to a wider range of treatments in more settings, including where they are. Those practical measures will help to make rights a reality.
One of the most significant changes that is being called for through the national mission is the embedding of a public health approach, wherever appropriate, in our justice system. As, I am sure, members are well aware, prosecution policy is not something that the Government or Parliament has a role in deciding. That is for the Lord Advocate in her capacity as an independent authority, as is set out in legislation. Nevertheless, this Government welcomes the change, as it is clear that people with a drug dependency must be supported and helped with their addiction. We know from countries such as Portugal that diversion from prosecution for drug possession towards support or treatment can be an opportunity to secure better outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in society. I note from the amendments that have been lodged and from the discussion about the Lord Advocate’s recent statement to Parliament that there is widespread support across the Parliament for her decision and widespread support for police diversion.
If the Labour amendment is not pre-empted by my amendment, I will support it, with its reference to “safe consumption facilities” and naloxone. I will continue to prioritise the use of naloxone, including by police officers. I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Police Scotland the police’s continuing role in the national naloxone programme, and I sought assurances about the support and training that are available to our police officers. We launched the national naloxone campaign last month, which has already significantly increased demand through our third sector partners. That is welcome.
I am aware that the Conservatives will shortly publish a draft right to recovery bill, and I will be happy to consider the bill closely. As I said, I have never ruled out the need for further legislation, but, as I have set out to Parliament several times this year, my focus will be on making rights a reality by getting more people into the treatment and recovery that are right for them, and at the right time. I am focused on making sure that, through the MAT standards and increased capacity in residential rehabilitation over the next five years, everything possible will be done to reduce drug deaths. [
.] I cannot take an intervention, as I am about to run out of time.
I genuinely hope to see something positive and practical in the proposed bill, but I will have to be satisfied that what is being proposed will not have a negative impact on existing practice and other existing rights. There are crucial rights already in legislation—for example, in the Patient Rights (Scotland) Act 2011 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995—and I look forward to hearing from the authors of the bill how those rights will be fully retained.
I move amendment S6M-01416.3, to leave out from “further” to end and insert:
“and public health emergency; offers its condolences to the thousands of families across Scotland who are grieving the loss of loved ones to drugs; believes that the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament should consider any proposal that is based in evidence and that can play a part in saving lives, including the right to recovery and harm reduction approaches; recognises that addressing drugs misuse must primarily be taken forward as a public health matter; supports that the £250 million investment to help address drugs deaths will support residential rehabilitation, community rehabilitation, Medication-Assisted Treatment standards, and a range of approaches to reduce harm; understands that prosecution policy is decided independently by the Lord Advocate and is not set by the Scottish Government or the Parliament; notes that experiences from other nations such as Portugal show that diversion from prosecution for drug possession towards support or treatment services can be an opportunity to ensure better outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
Last week, I welcomed to Perth, in my region, the recovery walk Scotland. In the debate, as we focus on Scotland’s high and unacceptable level of drug fatalities and mourn the unnecessary loss of life and loved ones, we must recognise the potential for recovery and the importance of investing in people and services.
The grip of addiction is powerful and unrelenting. People need support services to be flexible, responsive, free of stigma and committed to the long term. The recovery walk shows that change is possible. We must do all that we can to support people to make the change.
We are all aware of the Scottish Government’s complacent approach to drug addiction and treatment in recent years. Cuts to alcohol and drug partnerships led to a contraction in services. There was a lack of focus on the rising number of deaths, and there was a lack of urgency in responding.
However, as I said in the debate in June, this is the start of a new parliamentary session and I will work with Government and other parties to deliver meaningful and significant change, to ensure delivery of the MAT standards and to scrutinise policy to see whether it is making a difference. We must be open minded and evidence led.
We will consider the member’s bill that the Conservatives intend to introduce. I am open minded on the proposal to introduce a legal right to recovery, but I think that it needs scrutiny. It must be able to deliver what it sets out to achieve. The organisations that are working with the Conservatives on the bill are doing so out of a sense of frustration and a desire to help people who are looking for support.
This week I met Annemarie Ward from Favor—Faces & Voices of Recovery UK. I can understand the frustration over the lack of change, inadequate services, the postcode lottery of care and the lack of options for people seeking treatment. We will consider whether a legal right to treatment will address those issues. We must ask whether it will deliver the funding that is needed. Do we need it as a lever to drive the delivery of services? Will a meaningful right be realised? Those are issues that need to be explored in detail.
The Conservatives need to recognise that, while recovery and treatment options are vital and must be prioritised—and I agree that we need greater focus on investment—the solutions for reducing drug deaths are as reliant on harm reduction programmes as they are on rehab. Facilities that support harm reduction, whether consumption rooms, testing facilities or needle exchanges, address the reality of drug use. It is not fatalistic to accept that some people will continue to take illegal drugs regardless of what we say in the chamber, and the choices should not be to leave them in potentially life-threatening situations, such as ingesting dangerous batches of street drugs; or to wait and see whether they pursue recovery—if they make it that far; or to continue to deal with this group of vulnerable people as criminals.
That is a key point, and that is something that needs to be invested in, but we cannot ignore how important it is to have harm reduction policies and proposals that support people through the difficult addictions that they are living with. Su pporting harm reduction measures, whether those are safe consumption rooms or testing facilities, is not condoning drug use; it is simply being aware of the harsh realities of living with a drug addiction.
The commentary from the Conservatives over the weekend in response to the Lord Advocate’s decision was disappointing, and it misrepresented the policy, although their outrage at the decision is faux. In 2018, they supported diversion from prosecution. It was the Conservatives who highlighted Durham’s checkpoint diversion scheme as a model to emulate.
The Lord Advocate came to the chamber, as the Parliament called for, and I support her decision to expand recorded police warnings, which, we should be clear, was her decision to make. That does not change the offence—it is still illegal—but it changes how the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will deal with it. Police already use RPWs, and they are familiar with the judgment and professionalism that are needed to use them.
In the past year, the number of diversions from prosecution has doubled, and I hope that the change announced by the Lord Advocate will increase that further. However, the Scottish Government needs to deliver on its side of the equation. There have to be reliable, viable options for Police Scotland and authorities to direct people to, and all agencies must work together.
I want assurances that Police Scotland is enabling the national roll-out of naloxone. Social media reports at the weekend demonstrate a need for awareness raising and training for officers. The Lord Advocate has set out the role that our criminal justice services can play, but they need support from other services for that to be successful.
I support the right of everyone to enter recovery services. I agree that the pathways are not good enough right now, that they fail too many people and that they lack the capacity to meet the need and demand. I understand the frustration and disappointment of families who have been let down by services.
I do not want to regret putting faith into the MAT standards, and that is why I will hold the Government to account on delivery. We need the Parliament to be informed of progress. The charities that I know that are working with people with addictions tell me that, if the standards are fully introduced, they will be transformational for people who are ready to change their lives.
I move amendment S6M-01416.2, to leave out from “calls for a legal right” to end and insert:
“welcomes the Lord Advocate’s recent Ministerial Statement regarding diversion from prosecution and the expansion of the use of Recorded Police Warnings; recognises the urgent need to ensure that individuals can access treatment and recovery services when they need them and will consider all proposals that reduce harm and support rights to access treatment; recommends that the Scottish Government urgently considers all options within the existing legal framework to support the delivery of safe consumption facilities, alongside expanded community resources that help people avoid substance misuse and improve access to residential rehabilitation and treatment, and seeks assurances that Police Scotland is trained and supported to respect the nationwide roll-out of the provision of naloxone.”
I start by welcoming Sandesh Gulhane to his place. I look forward to working with him.
We are often divided in the Parliament, but I have heard, in the speeches made by members from all parties so far this afternoon, a counterpoint of and symmetry with my commitment to fighting this emergency. How we go about doing that is a different matter, as is evidenced by the motion and the amendments that were lodged for the debate, but we are working towards the common goal of stopping people from dying. On that, I thank Angela Constance for reaching out several times to me and my party. I welcome that approach. However, we cannot ignore that there are aspects of the motion that the Government amendment seeks to erase. For example, the Government fails to acknowledge its failures or to recognise the systematic problems that have arisen from the SNP’s decision to cut funding for alcohol and drug partnerships by as much as 22 per cent in the 2015-16 financial year. That sent us to the wall and severed relationships.
I believe that the Government has made progress on accepting responsibility for that, but I do not want the Parliament to revise the history of how we got to this point by backing the Government amendment. I therefore must inform the minister that, after consideration, I will not support that amendment tonight.
If progress is to be made, we have to be honest about where we are and how we got here. Progress so far has been far too slow. We have the worst drug mortality rate in the entire developed world—it is nearly four times the rate of our neighbours in England and Wales. This summer, official statistics revealed that 1,339 people died of drug-related deaths in 2020. That was an increase of 5 per cent, and it is the seventh year in a row that Scotland has reported record numbers of drug-related deaths.
In December last year, a new Minister for Drugs Policy, Angela Constance, was announced by the Government to give focus and attention to the crisis. I do not doubt Ms Constance’s ability or commitment to her charge, but we are yet to see the progress on the ground that we need. Two weeks ago, the interim statistics were released, showing that there were 722 suspected drug deaths during the first six months of this year. At that rate, drug-related deaths will continue at the same terrifying rate as previous years, and we will continue to set invidious records.
Despite the focus of an entire ministerial portfolio, additional investment and interventions such as an increased roll-out of naloxone, people have not stopped dying. That is why, last week, I wrote to the director general of the World Health Organization asking for international help. I believe that Scotland would be well served by a WHO task force, made up of leading experts in drug mortality, to assess and analyse this particularly Scottish problem.
The drug deaths crisis in Scotland needs a revolutionary strategy in order to make a meaningful difference to the way that we treat those who suffer from drug addiction and—crucially—to save their lives. That starts with innovative approaches, such as that of Peter Krykant and safe consumption rooms. The Liberal Democrats will support the Labour amendment tonight.
I am open to the idea in principle of the right to recovery, as laid out in the Scottish Conservatives’ motion, but my concern is that it will become simply another piece of feel-good legislation. I look forward to the publication of the bill—we will scrutinise it with an open mind, and we offer the hand of friendship to work through the issue with colleagues across the chamber. However, where the Conservative motion fails is in the human aspect of the drugs crisis and in the recognition of steps that we are trying to take to lessen that impact. The Liberal Democrats have had an evidence-based approach to drug policy for many years. We called for the decriminalisation of drug use long before any other party, because people should not be punished for suffering. The motion, however, rails against even the smallest steps towards that approach, announced by the Lord Advocate last week. We have to reduce the misery of drug abuse with compassion and health treatment, rather than prosecution and criminalisation, because people’s lives depend on it.
All members will surely welcome the opportunity to debate last week’s truly seismic announcement. It is remarkable that greater discussion has taken place in newspapers and on television than in this Parliament. Who would have thought that drugs law could be so radically altered at the stroke of a pen?
We keep hearing that Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis must be treated as a matter of public health rather than of criminal justice. Many say that the war on drugs has long been lost. There is agreement that much more needs to be done to counter the root causes of abuse and give addicts the treatment that they deserve and need. It is for that reason that the Scottish Conservatives plan to introduce a right to recovery bill, as explained by my colleague Dr Sandesh Gulhane.
The SNP Government’s effective decriminalisation of heroin, crack cocaine and other class A drugs will be felt in communities across Scotland. Normalising possession of those highly dangerous substances and removing the threat of prosecution will diminish the stigma surrounding those substances.
Would Mr Findlay accept that the recorded police warning system has existed since 2016? On his colleague Mr Gulhane’s contribution about the need for treatment and support, and reducing risk, would he accept that class A drugs such as heroin present the highest risk to individuals, and therefore those individuals need our help and not our punishment?
That is the very point that I am making. They need our help, and they need a right to recovery, but the current approach is wrong-headed.
The logical inevitability of decriminalising possession, as is happening now, is an increase in the social acceptability of drugs, and in their prevalence and use. Drug dealers will be delighted. Saving lives is the apparent justification for that gamble, but where is the evidence and the joined-up thinking?
I have spent the past month badgering the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, Keith Brown, about the prevalence of drugs in our prisons. We know that most drugs get inside by being soaked into items of mail. Chief among them are the psychoactive substances, such as etizolam—so-called street Valium—which causes serious medical harm to prisoners and puts staff at increased risk. Prisoners who desperately want to overcome addiction are failed by jails that are awash with drugs. For many of those prisoners, the prisons have revolving doors.
Despairing staff say that a simple and effective solution can be found. By giving prisoners photocopies of mail, and withholding the original items, a drastic reduction in the amount of drugs getting in can be achieved. That happened during the Covid lockdown, but, from the very day that those restrictions ended, staff reported a significant and dramatic increase.
I raised the matter with Mr Brown at the Criminal Justice Committee on 1 September, and I raised it with him again, in the chamber, on 15 September. Both requests were met with a vague undertaking to look into it. I raised the matter with him again on 16 September. My letter to him concluded:
“Given the urgency of this matter, I would appreciate immediate action and, if that is not possible, a full explanation as to why not.”
The day after the Lord Advocate’s announcement, I received Mr Brown’s response. His letter appeared to have been constructed by a committee of civil servants. I will read members an excerpt. It said:
“preparatory work into exploring the implications of a change into how we conduct SPS mail processes is well underway. This work involves assessing the full impact, risk assessment, legal implications and operational requirements associated with a change in how individuals’ mail is handled. Once an options appraisal has been reviewed—”
Members will get the gist, but I will put those words into plain English. The Government could act now, but it will not. Drugs inside will remain as abundant as ever before. More prisoners will overdose, and their chances of rehabilitation will remain vanishingly small.
If the SNP is sincere about—
I remind members that I am a board member of Moving On Inverclyde, which is a local addiction service.
Not one MSP wants the drugs crisis to continue. The Tories have been talking about a proposal for a legal right to recovery, and the cabinet secretary has—quite rightly—indicated today, and on multiple occasions beforehand, that the Scottish Government will look at any proposals that come forward. That is right and proper. Asking a Government to sign up to something that has not yet been written is no way to do policy, and the Tories know that. That notwithstanding, the Scottish Government has never ruled out the need for further legislation, and it will consider the detail of the draft right to recovery bill once it is made available.
The Conservatives are, through their proposal, asking the Scottish Government to do something, but some things are already happening. First, getting people into the treatment and recovery that is right for them, at the right time, is at the core of the Scottish Government’s national mission to save and improve lives.
Most of the issues that have been proposed for legislation are addressed by the recommendations of the residential rehabilitation working group, which the Government has already accepted. The Scottish Government is already investing in increasing the capacity of residential rehab nationally; developing good practice on referral pathways; and exploring options for standardisation and national commissioning of services.
As members know, the Scottish Government is providing additional funding of £250 million over the next five years. That funding commitment emphasises the importance that is placed on tackling this public health emergency.
There are a range of measures being taken forward, and investments being made. In particular, I welcome the move to a five-year funding cycle for those eligible third sector and grass-roots organisations that are at the forefront of saving lives. I have spoken about that decision previously in the chamber, and when I met the minister earlier this year, and I know that it will certainly save lives across the country.
Third sector organisations provide a range of services that are not always available via public services, and they can also adopt a different approach. We must empower more people to seek support and make that support more consistent, flexible and effective and available more quickly, as well as help services to stick with the people they support.
The additional investment will also be used to support a range of community-based interventions, including primary prevention, as well as an expansion of residential rehabilitation. Ultimately, the guarantee of funding to third sector partners will provide them with surety and will enable them to plan and deliver their services going forward, instead of always having one eye on funding bids.
The Parliament has heard time and again about the need for bold actions and decisions to deal with the drug deaths crisis. It is a national emergency, and we can all agree that we need to be bold and push ourselves into thinking about possible solutions and policies that will help our fellow citizens and our constituents, no matter how difficult that will be.
Last year, 33 people died in Inverclyde, and 1,339 people died in Scotland. Whether or not we want to admit it, the war on drugs cannot be won in the way that we have been doing it so far. I am pleased with the large drug hauls that take place across my constituency and the country, but that does not stop individuals obtaining drugs. We must also learn lessons from elsewhere, because we are failing our constituents if we do not. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so this Parliament has begun to adopt a different approach.
I will back the amendment in the name of the minister and I will not vote for the motion from the Conservatives.
Last week, the SNP announced that it was effectively decriminalising all class A drugs, including heroin, meth and crack cocaine. The possession of class A drugs is a serious offence, and that is the biggest shift in drugs policy in years, as my colleagues have said today. Normally, the Scottish Government is quick to consult and we cannot move for consultations, but on that, there was nothing—no debate until today and no stakeholder involvement.
Is Ms Webber aware that 89 per cent of people who die from a drug-related death have opiates in their system? We can offer someone who has cannabis in their possession a recorded police warning. If we are serious about saving lives, is there not a bigger case for being able to offer a recorded police warning to someone who has opiates in their possession?
That was quite a question, given that I have only four minutes. Although drug deaths are rising, the number of people who are convicted of drug offences has continued to decline, so I will carry on with my speech.
Rather than just softening the rules for drug dealers, the SNP should focus on guaranteeing treatment for anyone who needs it. Decriminalising class A drugs by the back door will help only drug dealers, who are ruining our communities, and that extreme move by the SNP will do nothing to save lives.
The answer to our drug deaths crisis is complex, and increasing the treatment that is available to those who need it should be at the heart of it. Anne-Marie Ward, chief executive of Faces & Voices of Recovery, has said that we have to be very clear
“not to view this as a silver bullet. This move will help but ultimately, it will not help people to get well on its own. It will not save lives on its own. It has to be accompanied by increasing access to treatment and rehabilitation or nothing will change.”
This week, I met Jay Haston from the WAVE Trust. He is a former drug addict and he said that the decriminalisation of drugs will not fix the root cause of Scotland’s drug deaths problem, because all that it does is put yet another
“plaster on top of an already bleeding plaster”, and that, now,
“everybody is having a party in the street”, because people from all walks of life are no longer scared to carry drugs.
On Monday, I visited Waverley Care. As Stuart McMillan said, we need more funding for third sector organisations that directly help people in such situations. In Glasgow, Waverley Care is helping vulnerable women, often victims of domestic abuse, who are caught in a cycle of drug use and broader health harm. It is a person-centred service, which is flexible in responding to an individual’s needs and enables them to escape the harm that is caused by drugs. We need more of that.
I urge everyone to back the Scottish Conservatives’ right to recovery bill, which would guarantee treatment or rehabilitation for anyone who needs it. Today, all we are asking for is time to be set aside to debate the matter in full.
Scotland’s drug crisis is the SNP’s shame. We need to see access to rehabilitation, not dangerous drug decriminalisation. Former Strathclyde Police Chief Superintendent, Tom Buchan, said:
“Talk about abject surrender … it should worry everyone. It shames us as a country.”
I support the Conservative motion from my colleague Sandesh Gulhane.
There seems to be general agreement that we must treat drug deaths in Scotland as a public health issue, not a matter of law and order. I think—I hope—that somewhere among members on the Tory benches, there is an understanding of that. In order to progress and pull our country out of the spiral, we will need to maintain that understanding, and my party will support measures to do so.
I am sure that my parliamentary colleagues will have noticed that, since Scotland re-established its Parliament in 1999, there has not been a parliamentary session in which drug deaths were not a serious concern for the constituents whom members are committed to represent. However, the seriousness with which the Parliament has treated the problem has only recently got anywhere near the level that is required to tackle it. Having seen some examples of other countries that have worked miracles to put a stop to deaths multiplying annually, we are now slowly waking up.
The Lord Advocate’s recent statement is simply realistic. It is not anything that the average person on the street would not understand as necessary. Drug abuse and its effects are not hidden away any more. We all see drug abuse, but far too many just want to keep it at arm’s length. Equally, the Lord Advocate’s intervention has had the positive effect of keeping the issue in the headlines during a time when, naturally, there has been a considerable focus on other health issues. That attention is sorely required.
Prior to Covid, a reform that was getting considerable attention—in no small part due to the great work of my party colleague Paul Sweeney—was safe consumption facilities. They are not an ideal solution, nor one that I particularly envisioned having to support, but over the years, it has become obvious that the scale of the problem in Scotland is well beyond slogans and awareness campaigns. We need to treat the issue with the same seriousness with which we treated the pandemic, and providing safe facilities to prevent death has been proven to work. That is one example of the direct and meaningful approaches that we need to take at all levels of health policy, policing and education. However, it requires serious funding.
In my region, NHS Ayrshire and Arran is experiencing the second highest rate of drug deaths in Scotland. Much of the work falls on the shoulders of community health workers, hospitals and the police, who are overworked, underpaid and left with resources that are stretched to breaking point. Undoubtedly, councils and health boards see the problem as a priority, but they simply do not have the funds to tackle it all the time. We need to expand community resources and improve access to residential rehabilitation and treatment to get on top of the issue. Part of that involves giving the police the time and training to support any reforms that take place, and not forcing through a new model with little consideration of those on the front line.
The police officers whom I have spoken to will be relieved to hear that a more pragmatic approach is now being taken on drugs, because it frees them up to do the policing that they joined the force to do. Included in that should be proper training, so that officers are prepared to respect the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, as the minister mentioned.
The debate does not have to be about who can show themselves to be the toughest on people with serious addictions. If it becomes so, that is just about politics, not progress.
Poverty is at the heart of the issue. Although I fully endorse all the measures that I have mentioned, the biggest reform that we could push through to end the crisis would be to remodel our economy and society so that it does not have built into its architecture acceptance that the vast number of people should simply be left to struggle in desperation while others have more wealth than could ever reasonably be required.
The loss of life in Scotland from drug-related deaths is heartbreaking and unacceptable. The Scottish Government is committed to implementing approaches that reduce drug-related harms now and in the longer term as we tackle that national mission.
To do so, we need a public health approach that supports people with addictions, not an approach that criminalises large swathes of the population. We need to take bold decisions, not continue with Westminster’s failed Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We need to consider each person as an individual and offer them the most appropriate treatment, not impose a one-size-fits-all response.
The Tories are calling for a right to recovery, but, in the same breath, they want to jail people caught in possession of drugs. I ask that the member who closes for the Conservatives enlightens us all on a matter: is someone with an addiction a serious offender who should go straight to jail, or are they a person who deserves quick and appropriate treatment from health professionals? [
.] No, the member can answer that in their own time.
The Government amendment mentions an alternative: Portugal’s public health approach, where drug use and drug-related deaths are consistently below the EU average, and the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs offences has more than halved.
The Westminster war on drugs has failed. The Tories are stuck in the 1980s. We cannot arrest our way out of the drugs crisis. We need bold thinking to reduce drug deaths in Scotland and the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 needs to be reformed.
Professor Fergus McNeill told the Criminal Justice Committee that
“punishment is not a smart response” to problems such as substance misuse and that that dehabilitates people. [
.] No, I would like to move on, thank you.
Professor McNeill also told us that criminal justice investment should be
“directed to diversion at every possible turn.”—[
Criminal Justice Committee
, 15 September 2021; c 18-19.]
.] No, thank you.
The Lord Advocate’s statement last week is, therefore, very welcome. As she made clear, guidelines on diversion are set by her, independent of any other person. Recorded police warnings do not represent decriminalisation; they offer a proportionate justice response in select circumstances. For example, if someone with an addiction is caught in possession of a small quantity of drugs, diversion from prosecution might be appropriate. Importantly, that will allow police more time to tackle the dealers and give drug users an opportunity to seek help. [
.] I am sorry, but no—I want to make progress.
Many new policies and initiatives have been announced and delivered by the Scottish Government in its national mission to tackle drug-related deaths. That is backed up with additional investment of £250 million over this parliamentary session.
One of the major measures that the minister is working to implement is the medication-assisted treatment standards. Those will ensure that patients can access evidence-based, high-quality services, with same-day treatment, harm reduction and support to remain in treatment for as long as requested.
I have spoken before about the Beacons, which is a Lanarkshire-based recovery community. Earlier this month, peer volunteers delivered a presentation on their research project. Their conclusion was clear: the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is not fit for purpose, and we need a public health approach, not a criminal justice approach, if we are serious about reducing drug harm. Theirs is the voice of experience. Let us listen to them.
I would like to extend my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to a drugs overdose.
During the debate on drug-related deaths in June, I spoke about dignity— the dignity of people who use drugs and how they are so often robbed of it by a system that seeks to punish them for their addiction. We cannot treat drug-related deaths as the public health emergency it is while we continue to criminalise people.
This is a health debate, which is being led by the Tories’ health spokesperson, so I hope that we all agree that it is a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Yet I have to admit that I do not understand some of the tone from the Conservatives during the debate, or some of the content of their motion. It begins by calling drug-related deaths a “humanitarian crisis”, but a few lines later it calls for people who are found in possession of drugs to continue to be criminalised. How can we solve a humanitarian crisis by criminalising those who are most affected by it? We must abandon the failed war on drugs, which stigmatises people and actually makes it more difficult to access treatment and support.
We need a harm-reduction approach. In June, the majority of members supported my amendment that called on the Scottish Government to investigate, as a matter of urgency, what options it has to establish legal and safe consumption rooms within the existing legal framework. Safe consumption rooms have been operating in Europe for 30 years, and there is evidence that they result in immediate improvements in hygiene, safer drug use, and wider health and community benefits. The Scottish Greens have long maintained that safe consumption rooms are an important public health measure that would play an important role in preventing drug-related deaths. I know that work on that issue is progressing, and I look forward to hearing updates in due course from the minister.
As the Government amendment notes, the Scottish and UK Parliaments should consider any evidence-based proposal that can help to save lives, including a right to recovery. On the issue of rehabilitation, it is clear that residential rehab provision needs to be greatly expanded, so that everyone who needs it can access it.
I thank Sue Webber for my promotion, but I am not a member of the Government.
To quote a Scottish Drugs Forum briefing:
“For some people in some situations, residential rehabilitation will be vital and effective.”
However, some people might be afraid that they will lose their tenancy if they enter rehab, and some might have caring responsibilities. It is vital that treatment services are as accessible as possible and that people who enter rehab are protected from negative consequences, such as homelessness.
Follow-up after discharge is also vital. When people leave residential rehabilitation, they are at increased risk of overdose, as their tolerance to drugs has been lowered. It is important that we recognise that people do not leave rehab cured and that they need on-going support. Residential rehabilitation provision must be well integrated with other health and care services, so that no one is left struggling to cope alone after they are discharged.
We must also consider that abstinence-based recovery will not suit everyone. As I have said before, we would not demand that someone stop smoking before we treated them for lung cancer. A range of treatment options must be available. Scotland has only about 40 per cent of people who need it in treatment at any one time, whereas England has 60 per cent. However, many people who use drugs have been in treatment at some point in their lives, so we have significant issues around retaining people in treatment. Services must be flexible and person centred and must take account of changing needs. Community-based provision such, as drop-in cafés and peer support networks, must be made available alongside residential rehab.
I will support the Scottish Government’s amendment, because it recognises the need for a focus on harm reduction and treatment. I am also very supportive of the content of Claire Baker’s amendment, but I note that it will be pre-empted by the Government’s. To tackle this crisis, we need to treat people with compassion, not judgment, and to offer them support, not condemnation.
I start by thanking the numerous organisations and individuals who gave me their time and expertise during my research for the debate. There are far too many of them to mention, but each of their contributions has been hugely helpful. I have been equally humbled by the work and effort that all of them have put in to help those who are affected by addiction, especially during the pandemic.
Why do people take drugs in the first place? That is a bit like asking what colour cars are. The reality is that there is no single reason, which simply means that nor is there a single silver-bullet cure.
In my constituency of Perthshire South and Kinross-shire and the wider Perth and Kinross Council area, there has been an increase in usage and in drug-related deaths during the pandemic. However, there is also some fabulous joined-up working through multiagency collaborations such as the alcohol and drug partnership, which has made it clear to me that it is committed to delivering the aims of the national drugs mission.
The work that the ADP is doing is brilliant. Because of its scope and scale, it is far too big to discuss it all in a four-minute speech, but it is important to say that the partners in the ADP include Perth and Kinross health and social care partnership; Perth and Kinross Council children’s services, housing services and justice services; local Police Scotland representatives; public health representatives; third sector partners; and the Scottish Prison Service. As part of the Scottish Government’s £13.5 million uplift to ADPs, this year, Perth and Kinross ADP is to receive just under £400,000 and then a further £180,000 to be used in the outreach and near-fatal-overdose pathways and for the lived and living experience panels.
I am sure that the member has heard concerns from the partnerships about their proposed centralisation under the national care service. What representations has he made to ministers about that?
I will come on to that.
That is an example from my constituency of the nationwide effort that the Scottish Government is committed to. I spoke to Jardine Simpson of the Scottish Recovery Consortium, who praised the £250 million funding package, with £100 million ring fenced for residential rehab and aftercare provision. That provision is every bit as important as residential rehab, to ensure that there is a support continuum and that folk are not just dropped back into the drug-taking environment without the necessary support. He spoke about how pleased he was to meet the minister, Angela Constance, and hear about her plans and full understanding of the real lived problems, which he said gave him hope that we are tackling this hellish problem with the right approach.
There is undoubtedly still much to do but, when people who have lived with and come through addiction tell me that they are optimistic about our minister’s handling of the situation, that gives me a lot of hope.
That brings me to the Conservatives’ motion. They seem to be all over the place on how to address Scotland’s problem with substance abuse. In the short space of four clauses, they go from calling drugs deaths a “humanitarian crisis” to expressing horror at the Lord Advocate not wanting to criminalise users. Every single person I have spoken to about the issue who has lived with addiction or worked with addicts—and sometimes both—has said the same thing: criminalising users does not break the chain. I just do not see how talk of a legal right to recovery can be resolved with a determination to judge and jail users.
I simply do not trust the motives behind the motion. It can be seen as cynically trying to use the death toll that drugs are taking in our communities to attack the Scottish Government while preventing and undermining many of the actions that would actually do some good. If the Tories were so concerned about the harms that are done by drug or alcohol misuse, why did they oppose minimum unit pricing for alcohol, when alcohol was a bigger killer of Scots than drugs?
“This is powerful, real-world evidence of the success of minimum unit pricing as a harm reduction policy.”
Just as the Tories in this chamber tried to stop minimum pricing, their colleagues in Westminster are blocking drug consumption rooms, which we know can reduce the risk of disease transmission and prevent drug overdose.
My question to Dr Gulhane is this: how will he maintain the trust of his patients who present to him with the disease of drug addiction when he is going to vote to jail them for an addiction that may well be attributable to poverty policies that his party has imposed on Scotland’s people for decades?
Scottish Labour is genuinely interested in the proposals for a right to recovery that Dr Sandesh Gulhane has outlined. Last year, more than 1,300 people in Scotland died of drug misuse, which was a record number of deaths for the seventh year in a row. As we have previously discussed in the Parliament, that is the highest rate of drug deaths of any country in Europe. As Claire Baker, Stuart McMillan and many other members have said, that is a national shame, with tragic consequences. Therefore, the Scottish Government is rightly under pressure to change that. We desperately need fresh thinking throughout the Parliament when it comes to Scotland’s approach to tackling drugs. If we do not have fresh thinking, we will fail.
A step in the right direction was the Lord Advocate’s announcement last week, in which she confirmed that the scope of the recorded police warning scheme has been extended to include possession-only offences relating to class A drugs. It is important that the Tories speak accurately about the announcement. It is still illegal to possess drugs. The law is not changing. Drugs have not been decriminalised, as the Tories know. It is about diversion from prosecution.
It is important to note that the scheme applies only to drug possession offences; it does not apply to drug supply offences. It is aimed at reducing the number of drug deaths and at getting people on to the right pathway, which is what Dr Gulhane talked about, and I believe what he said. For the Tories to characterise the Lord Advocate’s announcement as a wholesale decriminalisation of drugs does their proposal no justice whatsoever. Has it occurred to them that a route or pathway to recovery might come through a police officer issuing a warning under the scheme and referring a person to treatment services?
It is worth stressing that offering a recorded police warning is not mandatory. Police officers retain the ability to report cases to the procurator fiscal. As the Lord Advocate noted last week, when the police encounter an individual who they know, or suspect, is addicted to drugs, officers are able to direct that person to services that may be able to assist. Surely that is consistent with finding pathways to recovery. The Lord Advocate said that such referrals must become the norm. We need more resources for treatment and recovery programmes urgently.
In the previous debate on the subject, I said that drug consumption facilities are operating in 66 cities around the world. There is some agreement in the Parliament that Scotland needs to provide such facilities. A review by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction concluded:
“There is no evidence to suggest that the availability of safer injecting facilities increases drug use or frequency of injecting. These services facilitate rather than delay treatment entry and do not result in higher rates of local drug-related crime.”
The Scottish Government must work within the legal framework. Following the Lord Advocate’s statement last week, I asked her whether she considers that the supervision of those who are consuming drugs in such facilities contravenes the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because it might well be that it does not if the supervision is in order to save lives. I was pleased that the Lord Advocate noted, in response, that she
“would be prepared to consider any such future proposal”.—[
, 22 September 2021; c 26.]
We know that, by the end of March, lives had been saved by Peter Krykant, who has been mentioned. Such facilities have to be a serious part of our consideration if we are not to fail on the matter.
It is clear that most members in the chamber support taking a public health approach to our drug deaths crisis—Scotland’s other public health emergency. For most of us, the debate is about how, through our national mission to save and improve lives, to reduce harm and to promote recovery, we do everything possible to maximise that public health approach, which is much broader and more holistic than a purely medicalised model.
Like Pauline McNeill, I fear that the Tories are failing to join the dots in relation to life-saving emergency work to improve lives, because an all-Government and all-Scotland response must include our criminal justice system, our welfare system, our health system and our education system. Sue Webber said that she is worried that people will no longer be scared to carry drugs. I am worried about people being scared to seek treatment because of the risk of criminalisation.
Dr João Goulão, the architect of Portugal’s reforms, has said:
“The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”
Despite my questions about the Conservatives’ proposal on the right to recovery bill, I, like other members in the chamber, have been clear that I have an open mind and will give it a fair hearing, which of course is more than the Tories gave the Lord Advocate last week.
I have to say to Mr Findlay that it is a poor show never to let the facts get in the way of column inches in
. The decision is the Lord Advocate’s; it is not decriminalisation, nor is it mandatory. We heard from the Lord Advocate that the response could be tailored to the needs around the alleged offence and the individual who is involved. Most of us are trying to elevate the debate in, and outwith, the Parliament.
I do not expect Mr Findlay to know this about me, but a large part of my career before I entered the Parliament was to work in three Scottish prisons and a state hospital, so I know the hard work of prison officers both to make their institutions safe and secure and to protect and promote the welfare, and particularly the mental health, of prisoners.
I remind Mr Findlay that even prisoners these days have human rights, and that we do not pick and choose those rights. The challenge for our prison services is not only safety and security, but also the protection of our most vulnerable citizens, some of whom are wrongly placed in the prison system—[
Mr Findlay is a big boy now, and does not need his mammy to hold his hand; I am sure that he will be able to address any outstanding matters that he has with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans.
Let us go back to the facts of the matter and consider the diversion scheme that Baltimore introduced, in which they stopped prosecuting for low-level drug offences, and only six out of 1,400 diverted drug cases were involved in re-offending. Let us consider Portugal, with its six drug deaths per million of the population, in comparison to Scotland’s 315 deaths per million of the population. We have to think big, bold and radical.
Of course, the Conservatives are suspiciously quiet on the wide range of evidence-based interventions that work, whether they be safe consumption rooms, heroin-assisted treatment—
I am so sorry but I do not have time, Mr Briggs, otherwise I would.
Someone on the Labour benches made the point that the issue is not about supporting harm reduction over recovery or the other way around, but about supporting people. We have massive platforms of work, around medication-assisted treatment and residential rehabilitation.
I will indeed.
We have never presented any measure as a silver bullet, but neither will we pass up any opportunity, large or small, to take even one step forward. We will continue on a journey to save lives.
I thank members from across the chamber for their input to today’s short and, for the most part, respectful debate about our drugs crisis. It is a crisis, and there are, of course, polarised arguments over decriminalisation and even its perception. The argument is not new, nor is it easy, and it is clear from a number of contributions that there is agreement on the scale of the problem that we face in Scotland and even, to an extent, on what has gone wrong in the past and what might need to be done to fix the problem.
I want to be clear, however, about why we are using Opposition time to talk specifically about the decision that the Lord Advocate made last week. It is our view that this major shift in drugs policy has not fully been thought through or consulted on, nor have its potential effects or consequences been fully understood or debated. It is clear that very little consultation took place before the decision was made. In fact, last week’s announcement came as a surprise to many of us.
Jim Fairlie has just waxed lyrical about all the stakeholders that he has been engaging with about today’s debate. That is great, but let me remind him that none of those people would have a voice within these walls had we not brought the debate to the chamber in the first place. Where was the formal consultation with drug rehab charities, the third sector, Police Scotland and recovering addicts? What did Police Scotland say about the new guidance or the proposed changes? What experiences did the police share with the Government about the effect of the previous changes that were made to the possession of class B and class C drugs? What evidence is there that the approach does work or will work?
In my closing remarks, I quoted the evidence from Baltimore and Portugal. Mr Greene heard the Lord Advocate’s statement last week: did he not ask her questions about her decision?
I would have loved to, but we had a 20-minute question-and-answer session. There was no time to properly debate the issues and listen to the voices of those stakeholders that many of us have spoken about today.
In fact, why was a Holyrood committee not afforded the opportunity to take proper evidence? I am sure that many of them would have been happy to do so. We have a Health, Social Care and Sport Committee and a Criminal Justice Committee. Surely, that is the role of committees in a unicameral Parliament such as ours. There might be voices who support the move, but there will surely be others who do not; perhaps we ought to listen to those voices.
We argue that a shift in the guidance to police on whether to prosecute the possession of class A drugs makes them no less harmful, nor will it reduce drug use or drug deaths. We are not alone in that view. Other stakeholders in the real world share that view: this is not a political position. For example, the Centre for Substance Use Research said that there is a huge risk of escalating, not reducing, our drug problem.
I want to drill down into why that argument is being made. Maintaining legal barriers to drug use is a powerful means by which society seeks to suppress the limitless expansion in the scale and impact of drug use. The only way to reduce our drug deaths total is to reduce the overall level of drug use itself. The measure that was announced last week will go nowhere towards doing that because the policy, as it was announced, assumes a behavioural change only in those who use drugs, not in those who deal in them. The dealers will by buoyed by this new approach to how we police hard-core drugs.
I am happy to respond directly to that important point. In 2018, we said that there needed to be a holistic approach. I have never said on anything that was reported last week that I am against the principle of diversion. Many ideas have been mooted over the years, and our 2018 paper was to be commended, but it was ignored. That is the point. We cannot divert people from prosecution to nothing. We cannot divert them if there is nowhere to divert them to. That is the point that we are making today.
Neither can we simply point towards other countries and say, “My goodness, what a great job they’ve done!” without accepting that those Governments in those countries did not make 22 per cent year-on-year cuts to drug and alcohol services as this Government has done.
It is not good enough to use emotive arguments that are based on the perceived benefit of a policy. We need to use Scottish facts, and here are some facts for the minister. When the SNP came to power, there were 352 residential rehab beds in Scotland. There were 445 drug deaths that year, which we all agree was too many. Ten years later, there were 70 rehab beds and a death rate of more than 1,000. Today, that rate stands at nearer 1,400. Does the minister see the link? Those are the facts. They are disgraceful and they should be a source of shame for the Government.
One thing that we all agree on is that drug addiction destroys lives. Sandesh Gulhane made that point powerfully in opening the debate. Of course people with such an addiction need help but, for far too many, that help is simply not there. It is our unapologetic view that the right to recovery must be enshrined in law.
If the Government’s direction of travel is, as it says it is, to make our drug shame a health rather than a justice problem, that is fine, but ministers had better make sure that there is a health solution there to back it up. Their track record to date fills no one with confidence. We will support them on that journey, but they must be willing to listen.
I support the motion in Dr Gulhane’s name.