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Where is the urgency to help prevent drug-related deaths?

EVERY eight hours in Scotland one of our fellow citizens dies from entirely preventable drug-related death. Last year, the figure was 1051 dead, a decrease on the previous year of 1330.

It was widely celebrated and greeted as a sign that Scotland has turned a corner in our long-running battle to curb the level of drug-related deaths.

The harsh reality is that more than 1051 entirely preventable deaths should never be a cause for celebration, no matter how much of an improvement that figure is on previous years.

Because every life lost to this epidemic is a tragedy, every life lost is a waste and every life lost leaves behind heartbreak and agony for friends and family, many of whom run the risk of suffering the same fate due to a vicious cycle of poverty, trauma, poor mental health, addiction and criminalisation.

The Scottish Government infamously admitted that it ‘took its eye off the ball’ when it came to drug-­related deaths.

That is evident from the figures themselves, and I would argue that had this been an affliction that wasn’t so concentrated in the poorest communities in the country it would have been fixed a long time ago.

Had more than 1,000 people been dying year on year in leafy suburbs and middle-class families, the outcry would have been deafening. But it’s not and the consequence of that is a disengagement at the heart of government; one that sees this as an inconvenience needing dealt with, not as Scotland’s greatest public health emergency that should be a national mission, despite a declaration to that effect from the government.

And we should be in no doubt that this is a socio-economic issue. The latest figures show that those in Scotland’s most deprived communities are sixteen times more likely to die from drug misuse than those in the least deprived communities, while working-class cities like Glasgow and Dundee have drug death rates roughly double that of our more affluent capital city, Edinburgh.

There is no quick fix and no one silver bullet to solve this complex crisis. We need a multifaceted approach – one that includes harm reduction methods and access to recovery services. Neither will work in isolation, and to pretend otherwise is utterly disingenuous.

The economic and social circumstances of many poly-drug users mean that they are simply unable or unwilling to engage with addiction and recovery services. They cannot be allowed to simply fall by the wayside in a pursuit of abstinence and moral purity. For that cohort of people, harm reduction methods including overdose prevention centres and drug checking facilities must form part of the policy response, just as Glasgow’s forty-five needle exchanges have since 1987.

Similarly, those ready to engage with addiction and recovery services must be provided with the means to do so as and when they are ready. We know that this is not the case at present with MAT Standard targets being missed across the country, particularly in areas of highly concentrated drug misuse.

As those dealing with addiction will tell you themselves, the hardest thing to do is ask for help and the fact that we are letting people down when they come forward for that help is unforgivable.

There have been recent policy proposals laid before the Scottish Parliament. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, they have come from opposition MSPs rather than the government.

My proposed Drug Death Prevention (Scotland) Bill would introduce overdose prevention centres in Scotland; a lifesaving intervention that not only prevents overdoses but also provides a pathway to engagement with official services that will hopefully lead to recovery, for those able to.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives have sponsored a Right to Recovery Bill on behalf of FAVOR UK that seeks to ensure that access to recovery services is a statutory right and that a failure to provide such services would be treated as a breach, by the government, of that obligation.

Both should be considered seriously and if the government is committed to significantly reducing the number of drug-related deaths in our communities, then they should work cross-party to formulate policy that has unanimous support regardless of political affiliation.

My fear is that they won’t and will continue to proceed at a snail’s pace towards targets and policy interventions that should have been met and implemented years ago. There is no clearer example of that glacial progress than overdose prevention centres.

Proposals for a centre to exist in Glasgow have been doing the rounds for the best part of a decade, while the most recent iteration has been sitting on the Lord Advocate’s desk for over a year.

Where is the urgency? Where is the determination to save lives and to provide people with dignity? We know they work, and more importantly, we know that they can ­operate within the law.

I know, because I volunteered at one and was never arrested or charged and I saw the positive impact first-hand. Nine overdoses reversed, eight lives saved, all with no official funding while operating sporadic part-time hours.

We know these interventions save lives, and we know that the system at present is failing people. We need leadership, and we need it urgently. Otherwise, we will continue to see people with long-term drug and addiction issues die year on year until there is no one left.

You can read my column on the Glasgow Times website here: Where is the urgency to help prevent drug-related deaths? | Glasgow Times


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