The head of Scotland’s drug deaths taskforce has rejected an approach that seeks to punish “people out of addiction” as he called for the justice system to adopt a public health approach to spiralling fatalities.
Launching a hard-hitting report condemning “woefully inadequate” underfunding of services, David Strang said: “Addiction itself is not a crime and you can’t punish people out of addiction”
Strang said that people need to be treated with care and compassion not stigma and discrimination, “which so often people feel either generally among the population or even sadly within treatment services”.
Every day in Scotland, three people suffer a drug-related death.
The final report from the taskforce, set up three years ago to address the worsening public health emergency in the country’s addict community, called for the Scottish government to make a “radical commitment to making people’s lives better” while warning that the issue has been “too often used as political football”.
Strang said the report focused on a “no wrong door`” approach, to stop those seeking help from being shunted from one service to another: “We need to get much better at taking the person as they present and wrapping around them the services they need, which will be different for each individual.”
Strang – a former chief inspector of prisons and former chief constable of Lothian and Borders police – added that another significant recommendation was to utilise the experience of recovered addicts and their families when building services.
But the report also suggested a revised timescale of two years for introducing new medically-assisted treatment standards, which guarantee same day treatment and a choice of treatment for addicts. Strang said that was “more realistic” than the earlier Scottish government target, adding that this major shift in delivery would need to be properly resourced.
Highlighting Nicola Sturgeon’s previous acknowledgement of policy failings, the report states: “The first minister has publicly recognised that her government “took their eye off the ball”. The question now is whether the government will provide targeted funding to enable services to deliver transformational change – not a return to the funding of the past, but an ambitious and radical commitment to making people’s lives better”.
The report points out that the total £140.7m funding for alcohol and drugs represented 0.8% of the health and sport budget in 2021/22, while the most recent prevalence rate for those with problem drug use is 1.62% of the population, describing this as “woefully inadequate for this level of public health emergency”.
One of the principles underpinning the report is that “Scotland and the Scottish government must focus on what can be done within our powers” – however it does urge the UK government to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow for drug injecting facilities.
The taskforce also recommends more data sharing between services and policymakers, criticising “fragmentation” across policy areas “with little join-up between work on drugs policy and key policy partners such as mental health, justice, housing, poverty and inequality.”
Angela Constance, the Scottish government’s minister for drugs policy, a dedicated position created by Sturgeon in December 2020, said she would consider the recommendations, adding: “With the backing of an additional £250m over the course of this parliament, we are now focused on delivery and change on the ground, to provide meaningful improvement in people’s lives.”
The report comes after the previous head of the taskforce, Prof Catriona Matheson, resigned in protest saying she was not prepared to do a “rushed job” after the taskforce was instructed to submit its conclusions six months early.