An English author who once lived on Jura wrote that political language consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”, identifying it as the art of bringing together words “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. This axiom is borne out in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s high-profile declaration a year and a half ago of a “public health emergency” on drug deaths. Although the need for urgent action is clear, underscored by new figures revealing that 1,264 people died in Scotland as a result of drug misuse in 2019, a staggering 140 per cent increase from 2013 and a higher rate than almost anywhere else in Europe, the government’s ability and willingness to carry it through is in serious doubt. The abrupt sacking of drugs minister Joe FitzPatrick is a clear indictment of the government’s poor record and the absence of the urgency it promised last year and the record-breaking years before that, but it’s unlikely that the pre-election mini-reshuffle will bring about a genuine shift in approach and outcome.
The Scottish Government’s response to drug deaths has focused in large part on its campaign for drug consumption rooms (also called safe or supervised injection rooms). Inspired by their success in more than 70 cities around the world, a coalition of Glasgow City Council and various public agencies developed a proposal in 2016 for the opening of what would be the UK’s first-ever drug consumption room. When the UK government declined to devolve further powers to Holyrood to allow MSPs to establish a solid legal framework for the project, it was relegated to a form of purgatory, trapped in a war of words between an SNP-led government reluctant to push devolution to its boundaries and a Tory-led government obstinately opposed to making any further constitutional concessions. Nearly half a decade and thousands of deaths later, Scotland’s conversation about drugs has barely moved on, instead becoming increasingly occupied with this single issue.
This row has obscured the fact that the proposed facility in question was only ever aimed towards around 500 vulnerable people injecting drugs in public places in Glasgow city centre, a tiny fraction of the 11,900 “problem drug users” across the entire city, never mind the whole country. Bereft of a credible strategy to realise harm reduction measures on even this scale, Scotland’s political parties are even more distant from seriously exploring and tackling the social and economic roots of addiction – the cumulative impact of deindustrialisation, criminalisation and the latter-day era of austerity Britain. As progress stalls, new reports and task forces are held up as achievements in and of themselves, even as deaths continue their upward trend.
The mother of addiction
What most working class people in Scotland instinctively know – that addiction goes hand-in-hand with poverty and deprivation – has been confirmed by public health experts in countless studies. From the 1980s onwards, as the advent of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher led to sharp increases in unemployment and inequality, drug use in working class communities across the whole of Britain rose dramatically. In Scotland, the increase in drug-related deaths and other health inequalities was pronounced, particularly in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, thanks to a combination of historical deprivation, decades of disastrous Scottish Office economic policy choices and gentrification spearheaded by right-wing Labour council administrations. Criminal penalties associated with drug possession did little to prevent the rise; as Scottish police, prosecutors and courts handed out increasingly long sentences for personal possession of heroin, experts later noted that the “heavy-handed response of the police, courts and the medical establishment, in their interpretation of the law and other guidance, served only to send injecting drug use further underground”. This harsh treatment of drug users was part of a broader shift under Thatcher towards using criminal punishment to address social problems instead of increasing social provision, a philosophy which continues to shape penal policy now.
Though Thatcher left office more than three decades ago, the profound impact of Thatcherism has left a visible mark on drug death figures; most of those dying as a result of drug abuse now are old enough to have lived under Thatcher and many of them felt the consequences of her policies as they entered the workforce. This ‘generational cohort’ effect which broadly maps with the peak of the neoliberal revolution in the 1980s could materialise again. In 2017, a report by NHS Scotland and University of Glasgow researchers warned that “recent exposures to a more ‘flexible’ labour market and greater conditionality and sanctions in the social security system, particularly for young working-age adults, may in time lead to another cohort at high risk”. In other words, even before the deadly consequences of Thatcherism are fully felt, Tory rule today is digging graves for another generation through welfare sanctions, Universal Credit and zero hour contracts. The prospect of this being exacerbated even further by an inadequate economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic is deeply worrying.
In this context, even the most ambitious harm reduction measures such as heroin-assisted treatment, which was rolled out in Glasgow for the first time late last year, represent only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. While the Scottish Government’s national drugs strategy openly acknowledges the need to tackle “broader inequalities, including improving people’s quality of life, access to housing and employment”, writers such as Ewan Gibbs note that deindustrialisation has continued under its watch, with the devastating closures of the Caley and BiFab as stark examples; meanwhile, the SNP’s Growth Commission brazenly excluded trade unions altogether in the process of developing its notably conservative economic plan for an independent Scotland. Without being willing to embrace a more radical economic prospectus, the Scottish Government will continue to self-sabotage its already-limited ambition to “reduce” deaths.
There is scant evidence to suggest that the Holyrood and Westminster governments of today are any more likely to successfully intervene on drug-related deaths than they have been in the two decades since devolution, particularly as austerity bites into public sector budgets at both a local and national level. Services which struggled for funding in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, as cuts were passed down from Westminster to Holyrood to councils, remain underfunded. The Scottish Government has promised to invest £1 million in residential rehabilitation facilities, snubbing calls from the recovery sector for £20 million; mental health services, which play an important role in preventing drug abuse, have faced cuts and increasing demand. The SNP’s managerialism and constitutionalism has ruled out any meaningful challenge to Westminster’s authority over drug laws, for instance by appointing a radical Lord Advocate willing to end prosecutions under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a move which would push the boundaries of devolution and, in doing so, advance both the national debate on drugs and on independence. Its economic conservatism will do little for the most deprived parts of the country. But all of this can change if communities affected by drug use find a means of building and wielding their own political power, instead of leaving the subject to public health researchers and NGOs.
The most promising steps in this direction have been taken by Peter Krykant, who last year refitted a van to serve as a mobile supervised injection facility and deployed it on the streets of Glasgow at great personal risk. Drawing inspiration from similar campaigns of civil disobedience in Canada and Denmark which successfully changed the law in their respective countries, Krykant and his volunteers are now supporting a small number of vulnerable drug users while continuing to campaign for an official NHS facility. Now, in an important escalation of his campaign, Krykant has announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the Holyrood elections this May in his home constituency of Falkirk East. His pitch in a powerful article for The National yesterday, in which he openly identified himself as “the first candidate to run for the Scottish Parliament who has openly suffered from addiction leading to homelessness, trauma and despair”, promises a serious challenge to the status quo. On the one hand, as an independent candidate in a first-past-the-post election, he faces an uphill battle to be elected; on the other, his lack of party affiliation and his impressive record on a deeply-felt issue could well resonate with voters across party lines. He would not be the first fiercely independent MSP to be returned from Falkirk, with Dennis Canavan sent to Holyrood by voters in neighbouring Falkirk West with crushing majorities in the early 2000s. Even if he is not successful, his candidacy could prevent Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis from being obscured by the national question. Krykant himself links independence to pressing social problems here and now, arguing that independence is “inevitable” but that campaigners “must start answering the questions that were unanswered before” on social provision.
Irrespective of whether or not he wins, however, Krykant and his team of volunteers will not be able to end the harm of drugs in Scotland by themselves. There is a crucial role for the wider left to play in connecting the devastation of drug deaths with the struggle for jobs and quality public services, bridging those families campaigning for action on drug deaths on one side with trade unionists and others resisting deindustrialisation and austerity on the other – both often being drawn from the same communities. As well as widening support for workers on the back foot as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic bites, bringing the issue of drugs into the sphere of mass political activity will make demands for harm reduction, an end to criminalisation and a reversal of deindustrialisation into something tangible and urgent. With little to lose and everything to gain, there is no better time than now.