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Letters / A new approach to drugs use

Last month, a record seizure of £135,000 worth of heroin was made in Lerwick, a fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act, a law passed in 1971 which prohibited the use of all recreational drugs except for nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.

The value of the drugs bust – more than five times the previous record – has startled local politicians and police leaders. I had presumed that a heroin consignment of this size was being smuggled via Shetland en route to cities in the UK mainland, so I was shocked to find out that it was solely intended for the local Shetland market.

After five decades of prohibition in the UK, it’s time to face up to the fact that despite all the “just say no” campaigns, sniffer dogs, police funding, jail time and public shaming of drug users, our drug problems have only ever got worse.

In the 1960s, only a few hundred people in Britain used heroin. Users were given medical heroin on prescription by doctors and had ready access to healthcare. Overdose deaths were rare.

When the Misuse of Drugs Act was brought in, heroin supply passed from doctors and pharmacies into the hands of criminals who sold the drug for profit. The number of users rose sharply. In 1975 after just four years, the number of heroin users in Britain had jumped from a few hundred to 5,000.

By the early 1980s every inner city district in the country had developed a drug problem. Police poured money into tackling the issue but as drugs squad operations gathered in pace, so the brutality of organised criminals increased.

Today in Britain, hundreds of thousands of people use heroin problematically. Drug deaths are at record levels and violent, organised criminals recruit vulnerable children to do their bidding.

In public, police chiefs grin at the cameras in front of ever increasing hauls of seized drugs and firearms. In private, they despair as their well-intentioned law enforcement efforts serve only to increase harm in society, with each criminal supply line removed being quickly replaced with another, often more brutal one.

At the same time police leaders across the country have to deal with ever increasing levels of corruption in their own ranks – the inevitable consequence of the strength of a multi-billion pound illegal drugs market. Having witnessed at first hand the ugliness and inhumanity of the UK’s war on drugs, it’s no surprise that one of the most vocal organisations campaigning for change is LEAP – Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose membership consists of current and former police and military officers.

In 1986 there were four registered heroin users in Shetland. Today, more than 100 Shetlanders use heroin problematically, with drug related deaths occurring on a regular basis. Families grieve behind closed doors, often silenced and shamed by the stigma of drug use.

What’s to blame for Shetland’s drug problems? You hear many theories: poor upbringings, childhood trauma, long dark winter nights, young people getting bored with nothing to do, insufficiently harsh sentences for drug dealers, the drugs themselves… Some of these narratives might hold some truth but the overwhelming reason why we have drug-related harm in Shetland is because of the system of prohibition enshrined in the Misuse of Drugs Act.

There’s never been a piece of legislation in modern British history that has caused so much harm for so many people, over such a long period of time.

We need to view drug use in a completely different context. The truth is, human beings have always used drugs and always will. In my view, drug use should not be seen as a moral issue: there is nothing inherently wrong about using drugs for recreational or medicinal purposes. The hypocrisy in our society’s attitude to alcohol when compared to other drugs only serves to underline this point.

The fact that drug use is potentially dangerous means that we have to take a harm reduction approach. As we have discovered over the last 50 years, handing drug supply over to profit-seeking organised criminals has taken us in completely the wrong direction.

Drugs education hasn’t helped. For generations, schoolchildren have been taught to “just say no” to drugs. Unsurprisingly, young people frequently do not heed this advice. We need a shift in the focus of our message to “Just say know”. Only by equipping people with honest, evidence based information about all aspects of drug use do we allow people to make safer, more informed choices.

As a campaigner for drug policy reform, I helped to bring together a group of drug policy experts, journalists, recreational drug users, recovering problematic drug users, police officers, health commissioners and bereaved relatives to create a sensible, evidence based, compassionate drugs policy based on the system of “legal regulation” – in which the use of drugs is decriminalised, and the supply of drugs is legalised and regulated by the government. This is the current policy of the Green Party.

At first thought, legalisation of drugs seems like a frightening prospect but it’s nowhere near as frightening as the current situation we have in Scotland, with 1,187 drug deaths in 2018 alone.

The only way to get drug use safe and under control, and to cut out the horrific organised crime that’s associated with the drug trade, is if we take the drugs market out of criminals’ hands and into the legalised, regulated sector.

People often think that legalisation means more drugs being made available on supermarket shelves – but this is not true. Firearms are a good illustration of this: Guns are legal in the UK but thankfully not available in supermarkets, and strictly controlled by the law.

Legal regulation is about bringing the drug supply under control, so that fewer lives are lost and fewer lives are wasted.

With the right government policies, drug deaths could be brought close to zero, crime could be drastically cut, and the treasury could be better off to the tune of many billions a year, through reduced expenditure on policing and health, and increased revenue in licensing and taxes from a legalised and regulated drug market. Most importantly, the door could be opened to novel medical treatments for a huge range of physical and mental health conditions.

The Shetland Greens are calling out the failed strategy of prohibition and are advocating for a new approach to drug use, based on compassion and evidence. Drug use should be seen as a medical and social issue, not a criminal one.

Problematic drug users do not need contact with the criminal justice system, they need help and support, often for complex and untreated medical and psychological issues.UK drugs laws act as a huge constraint to harm reduction but there are a number of evidence-based interventions that Green councillors will work towards if elected to the council in 2022:

  1. Work with local police to divert vulnerable users towards health and social care services and away from the criminal justice system;
  2. Work with the NHS to provide medical heroin on prescription to vulnerable users (as was the case in the 1960s);
  3. Establish a safe injecting facility in Shetland;
  4. Increase the availability of naloxone – a life-saving antidote to heroin;
  5. Establish a drug safety testing laboratory, so recreational drug users can anonymously check the strength and purity of drugs they have bought and receive safety advice before use;
  6. Ensure that the general public receive honest, evidence based education about drugs from suitably qualified people, with a particular focus for at-risk groups and young people.

Political opponents smear the Greens as idealists but offer no alternative to the demonstrably disastrous policy of prohibition. The truth is that drug-related harm is out of control – and getting worse.

Implementation of these policies, which have all been tried and tested successfully in different parts of the UK, will be hugely beneficial: not only will they cut crime and free police time to focus on violent offences, they will save the lives and livelihoods of Shetlanders and provide leadership in tackling Scotland’s drug death crisis.

Alex Armitage
Bigton