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Tackling the drug deaths crisis should be the first priority

THE incoming First Minister faces an overflowing in-tray of problems.

Almost a decade ago, Nicola Sturgeon asked us to judge her on her record on education. In her words, she was prepared to put her neck on the line. A decade later, as she prepares to leave her role as First Minister, Scotland’s education system lurches from one calamity to the next with the attainment gap wider than ever before and teachers in Scotland’s schools have entered their fifth month of industrial action.

By any measure, her record on education was one of failure but it was by no means the biggest failure of her premiership.

And while the SNP is in embroiled in a bruising leadership contest, Scotland is gripped by a public health emergency. Under the SNP, Scotland has become the epicentre of drug-related deaths in Europe.

As a country, we stand stubbornly apart from even our closest neighbours. With drug death rates in Scotland almost four times that of the UK average this is a unique problem; and a problem that is causing devastation in our communities.

For too long drug deaths in Scotland have been ignored and neglected by our government.

Just as Nicola Sturgeon put her neck on the line and wanted to be judged on her performance in improving Scottish education, Scotland’s next First Minister must be willing to put their neck on the line and be judged on whether they can solve Scotland’s drug death problem.

I can only hope that the latter will prove more successful than the former.

Because this is not a crisis that has broken out overnight. When the SNP first came to power in 2007, there were 455 drug-related deaths recorded in Scotland. After more than a decade of almost constant increases, the latest figures saw 1330 drug-related deaths recorded, meaning the total death toll from 2007 to now sits at almost 10,000.

In Scotland, someone dies from an entirely preventable drug-related death every six hours.

Contrary to claims made by some in power, it is not a political crisis that is being held up by Westminster.

With powers over health, education and justice, our next First Minister can and must act on this crisis from day one, just as their predecessor should have. There can be no more taking their eye off the ball, no more hand wringing and no more finger pointing.

We know what solutions work; I have witnessed them first hand.

During the pandemic, I volunteered with Peter Krykant at his unofficial overdose prevention pilot in Glasgow. For a year, we worked part time in an old, converted NHS ambulance helping some of the most vulnerable people who use drugs in Glasgow. With no funding from official services, we saved eight lives and reversed nine overdoses. In that same time, the entire machinery of government reduced the number of deaths in Scotland by nine.

Peter put his neck on the line, at the cost of his own employment, but unlike government ministers his efforts were successful and his record unblemished. Last week, he expressed his grave concern that turbulence in the ranks of the Scottish Government could prevent us from getting a grip of this crisis; a concern that I share.

The cause of that concern is simple – even when the government has been free of infighting or division, the crisis has gotten worse while progress on policy change and implementation has moved at a snail’s pace. There is no better illustration of that glacial pace of change than in the introduction of overdose prevention centres. They have been in use worldwide for more than 30 years, we have been talking about them in Scotland for more than a decade, yet not a single centre exists.

That is why I lodged my private members’ bill, the Drug Death Prevention (Scotland) Bill, in the Scottish Parliament last year. During the consultation period, I heard from many parents, siblings and children who had lost loved ones to drugs. They stand as painful reminders of the scarring effect that this crisis has had on our communities.

The bill aims to emulate the success of Peter Krykant’s work by extending it throughout Scotland. Overdose Prevention Centres have been shown to save lives across the world, and it is a matter of fact that they will do the same in Scotland. I have never pretended that they are a silver bullet; our response to this crisis will have to be multifaceted. However, they will undoubtedly play a key role in providing safety and dignity to those in need while ending the stigma that comes with addiction and the personal traumas that often underlie it.

In less than a month, our country will have a new First Minister and the chaos of the SNP’s current leadership election will be over. We can only hope that from this turbulent episode arises an inflection point for the Government.

For far too long, entirely preventable drug related deaths have inflicted devastation on our communities and on our nation’s social fabric.

Our next First Minister will need to acknowledge this crisis that grips our nation, recognise that there are known solutions and be judged on their record of solving Scotland’s drug death crisis.

They must act swiftly, they must be bold, and they must be brave.

Ultimately, they must be willing to put their neck on the line and commit to making Scotland’s drugs death crisis their number one priority.

You can read my column on the Glasgow Times website here: Tackling the drug deaths crisis should be the first priority | Glasgow Times


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