Tommy Sheppard | MP for Edinburgh East

In two weeks’ time we’ll know the number of drug related deaths in Scotland last year. Most people expect the figure to top 1100. Most of these deaths were preventable – they shouldn’t have happened.

They include people who overdosed by accident because their street drugs were cut with lethal toxins. Or people who had respiratory failure brought on by a cocktail of depressants. They didn’t mean to die.

They are among the most vulnerable and powerless in our society. Most had few friends or family that cared. Their deaths are otherwise unlamented. And yet we have no right no call ourselves a civilised society whilst our fellow citizens are culled in this manner.

Scotland has a drugs crisis. The policies don’t work. We need to wake up and smell the evidence. That’s the context in which a cross party group of MPs are now looking at what needs to change in how we deal with drugs.

The Scottish Affairs Committee is half way through a ten-week inquiry. So far, we’ve taken evidence from dozens of experts – people at the sharp end of this crisis. It’ll be a while before we can produce our report but here’s a flavour of what we are finding out.

Forget what you think you know. Here’s your starter for ten.

  1. People have always taken drugs. Since the first cavemen chewed leaves in the forest to get high people have searched for stimulants to cope with the business of living.
  2. Most people who take drugs do so without a problem.
  3. One in ten people who do take drugs have a problem with them.
  4. Anyone can develop a problem but it’s much much more likely if you are poor or had a traumatic childhood or suffer from a mental illness.
  5. Street drugs are very expensive so if you are poor you will steal to pay for them.
  6. Prohibition means the drugs market is controlled by criminal gangs – and it’s in their interest to make them as addictive as possible with no regard for the effects on your health.
  7. Because it’s illegal to possess illicit drugs people will consume them close to where they buy creating disturbance for nearby residents.
  8. Sending people to prison increases the number of drug users.
  9. Where drugs have been legalised, deaths have gone down and there has been no increase in people taking drugs.
  10. In Canada and elsewhere changing the law on drugs has gone hand in hand with better health and social services for users resulting in people turning their lives around.

All of this I know because I’ve spoken to the people who know. They have spent years dealing with things as they are not pontificating about how they’d like them to be. Working with real people living real lives.

To be fair, drug policy has featured in the Tory leadership race - but not in a good way. Whether it’s Michael Gove’s cocaine confessions, Rory Stewart’s opium pipes, or Sajid David’s insistence that because he’s never taken drugs he’s right to make a criminal out of everyone who has, there has been an abundance of glib platitudes which are singularly unhelpful for dealing with this crisis.

It’s time to listen to the doctors, charity workers, police officers and users themselves. Time to move towards legal regulation and quality control, taking it out of the hands of organised crime. Time to have proper advice and information on using drugs. Time to help people who develop a problem within our health services rather than taking them to court.

But most of all we need to tackle the child poverty, inequality and misery which fuels the appetite for artificial stimulation in the first place. We need to build a society where people have more to celebrate than to forget.

Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 20th June 2019