Source Direct: The War on Drugs Failed in Scotland and Beyond

There are advance indications that Scotland’s drug death figures, released today, will be the worst ever. They follow a shameful last year, where Scotland overtook America as (per capita) the drug deaths capital of the Western world.

THERE ARE ADVANCE INDICATIONS that Scotland’s drug death figures, released today, will be the worst ever. They follow a shameful last year, where Scotland overtook America as (per capita) the drug deaths capital of the Western world.

The temptation, rather often, is to bodge this difficult issue into the Edinburgh-London power debate. But neither side comes off well in these accounts. True, drug misuse policy is under Westminster control, and the Scottish Government can rightly claim it supports progressive drug policies (e.g. safe injection rooms) that Conservative rule prevents. All of this has a plausible ring. Britain’s legal approach remains in the punitive dark ages.

Equally, the figures are strikingly worse in Scotland than in other areas labouring under Westminster rule, including those that suffered equally severe job losses and neglect during the grim Thatcher years. There is simply no denying that the figure reads badly for a Scottish society trying to portray itself as an oasis of cuddly social democracy.

And I would always hesitate to call Scotland a “victim” in these debates. Partly this is because victimhood has become far too prevalent in political rhetoric. Equally, it is clear that those dying of drug are themselves victims of an unequal Scottish society. Scottish neoliberalism was a real phenomenon, and it did allow the better off to look the other way, to stigmatise addicts, to blame individuals or appease consciences with marketing slogans.

Still, in one crucial sense, Scotland is a victim, of a global “war on drugs” ideology that has failed everywhere and has all manner of repressive symptoms, from imperial invasions in Latin America to militarised police services. Those policies failed even at the most elementary level, with their crude moralism (from “just say no” to “heroin kills”) serving to glamorise drug use among alienated young people seeking agency, rebellion and escapism. 

Such approaches also, by their nature, failed to account for social factors in drug use, especially those that touched on inequality. After all, the war on drugs in the West was always founded on the idea that people succeed or fail based on “bad life choices”. For all its hectoring conservatism, this notion was symptomatic of rampant individualism. We are still living with the long historical hangover of a generation of unenlightened thinking. The fact that Scotland’s figures are alarmingly bad by international standards should not disguise that broader conclusion.

The coronavirus has served to illustrate how much money society could feasibly throw at stopping an epidemic. The total cost will be in the billions and then some. Scotland’s drug death figure is not as high as the figure for coronavirus deaths. But neither is it in an entirely different ballpark.

Yet everything that people learned about “bad life choices” has been ingrained in the collective psyche. A generation of political and moral leaders trained voters to think of these as individual failings. Resistance to spending money on drug treatment thus remains a feature of contemporary politics, not just in Scotland, although in Scotland the consequences are especially stark. To address these problems will require bravery and leadership in the opposite direction, to humanise addiction and to challenge the moralising hypocrisy of elites who are always bailed out for their own “bad life choices”.