The political addiction to tough
talking on drugs has failed us all
On Monday more than 250 people will fill the Holyrood
debating chamber to discuss one of the most important and complex issues
of the day. Senior police officers, academics, community leaders and
health professionals will be among those seeking to develop a "fresh
perspective" on Scotland's approach to drugs and alcohol. This event,
which will kick-start a year-long investigation by the Scottish
parliament's Futures Forum, is timely. For if ever there was a subject
that needed bucketloads less heat and shedloads more light, it's this
With an election in the offing, there is a real and
present danger that debate will descend into a bidding war of hard-edged
rhetoric and simplistic solutions. And that's the last thing Scotland
If tough talking from politicians was the answer, the
so-called war on drugs would have been won long ago. A decade ago,
Scottish party leaders - kitted out memorably in T-shirts and baseball
caps - joined forces as the then-Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth
pronounced: "The drugs epidemic is a scourge as terrible as any
mediaeval plague. Let us, as a nation turn back the tide of drug abuse
which is engulfing our young people and threatening our civilisation."
Ten years on tough talk still abounds, but it would be a brave - or
foolish - politician who would claim the tide has been turned.
It's time to get real. The demonisation of drugs and
drugs users may make for rabble-rousing speeches and sensationalist
headlines but it does little to promote understanding of what is really
going on in our society, to help those whose lives are affected or to
reduce the scale of the problem in future.
The law of the land - as well as all of us as
individuals, citizens and parents - should, rightly, set parameters of
what we regard as acceptable conduct. But facing up to facts can and
must be the starting point for any sensible debate, whatever its
Drugs - illegal or otherwise - are a part of our
society. Human beings have sought out substances to change the way they
see the world and how they feel since we worked out which leaves and
berries to pick off the trees.
In the modern world the options are no longer just
organic but include an ever-increasing number of synthetic chemical
compounds. Globalisation has led to an illegal drugs market on a massive
scale. Add to that tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs, and there is
no shortage of substances available to those who seek them.
To acknowledge the scale of the challenge is not to
admit defeat. Simply wringing our hands or putting this in the "too
difficult" bundle would be as unrealistic as it would be negligent. But
so too is it a folly to suggest that there are quick fixes to this most
complex of problems.
Here in Scotland, we have seen too many knee-jerk
responses and blanket solutions. Policy and practice should not be
framed by immediate reactions to the latest tragic incident or research
report. We need a pragmatic approach to drugs policy - not a moralistic
one. For example, it is nonsense to brand the methadone programme a
failure because only a proportion of people have become drug-free. What
about the people who, with help from methadone, have moved away from
criminal activity to hold down a job or to look after their children?
Not to mention the benefits to wider society of stemming the spread of
serious infections such as HIV and hepatitis C by reducing intravenous
Neither abstinence through residential rehabilitation
nor maintenance through prescribing of drug substitutes is a solution in
itself. But it would be utterly perverse if the answer to a failure to
provide a range of options was to reduce the number of options
And what about children? "We'll take kids off the
junkies" was one memorable tabloid headline last year. Whether it was
journalistic hyperbole or the result of deliberate spin is neither here
nor there. The fact is that removing a child from its parents is one of
the most serious things the state can ever do.
Those who talk of drug users as being unfit parents
should take a long, hard look at the range of poor parenting in our
society and the different forms of neglect and abuse which happen. There
is also the appalling track record of the state in looking after
children, as shown again by a report published only last week. So let's
not buy into the simplistic notion that plucking children from a
drugs-using household is a panacea.
Above all, the aim of public policy should be to
reduce harm of every kind; to individuals as well as to families,
communities and society as a whole. The political debate should be
driven by this imperative rather than by a desire to appear tough.
And what about the law? All too often the debate gets
stuck on legalisation versus prohibition. Again the reality is much more
complex. UK drugs control laws are more than 30 years old, a product of
a bygone age. A growing number of voices, both at home and abroad, are
raising questions about whether the current national and international
legal framework is fit for purpose - this discussion cannot be a no-go
area. Yet sadly the space for sensible and honest discussion seems to be
inversely proportionate to the size and complexity of the task. It would
be a crying shame if the only voices heard in the run-up to the Holyrood
elections are those who talk the toughest and shout the loudest.
Scotland deserves better.
14 January 2007