The ever-rising number of drug-related deaths in Dundee is a sign UK drug policy is not working, critics say.
Dundee City West MSP and public health minister Joe FitzPatrick has called for “innovative and bold measures” in the wake of the worst ever drug death rates on record.
Nearly 1,200 people were killed by drugs in Scotland last year. The rate at which people die of drugs in Dundee is twice that of the country as a whole.
What are the “innovative and bold measures” that could be taken – and what else needs to be done closer to home?
Today, the Tele looks at four key areas of policy that could turn the tide in the fight against drug deaths – and save lives.
1) Safe consumption rooms
Safe consumption rooms, which see people use their own drugs in a supervised and sterile environment, are promoted as a way of reducing the risk of overdose and taking dirty needles off the streets.
While adopted by the likes of Denmark, Germany and Spain they are illegal under UK law.
Alison Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central, believes this needs to change to save lives.
Ms Thewliss, right, was once a councillor in the city’s deprived Calton ward, where residents are more than twice as likely to be hospitalised for drug misuse than the average Scot according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.
She said: “My support for safe consumption rooms is driven by evidence in my own constituency.
“People keep saying to me that they’re finding needles in their closes and all over the place.
“It became very clear to me it’s because people who use drugs have nowhere else to go – and the barrier to that changing is the Misuse of Drugs Act.”
The MP believes the case for such facilities is now “overwhelming” – and says they can be more than just somewhere for people to safely use drugs.
She added: “The criminal justice approach hasn’t worked. People have been made to feel they are failures and that shouldn’t be the case.
“People visiting these centres can get advice and healthcare. You need to make sure people can get that other support.
“We will have a new prime minister next week, who I hope will bring in new ministers that can remove blockages to this.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has resisted calls for safe consumption rooms.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The UK Government has been clear that there is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms and there are no plans to introduce them.”
2) Methadone treatment
While much of the debate on drugs this week has centred on what needs to be done to help future generations of users, little has been said on what is being done to help those who require aid now.
Grandmother Sylvia Fox has been taking methadone for more than 30 years and is now on a minimal dose, aiming to reduce it to zero by the end of 2019.
However, the 48-year-old says stretched services cannot afford to provide support beyond a methadone script.
The lack of help means people are being left “parked” on replacements for years – often with lethal consequences.
Methadone was implicated in 40% of last year’s drug deaths in Dundee.
Sylvia said: “Services need to stop putting people on multiple years of methadone, and give them support with their mental health and help them back into employment.
“How are people meant to get better if they don’t offer them the support?
“Key workers don’t have the time to accommodate everyone – they want to offer you time but they don’t have it to spare.
“There needs to be more money spent on services and more peer supporters who have lived-in experience. And Dundee needs a rehab or detox centre – there is nothing like that here at all.
“If we do that, people will get better and there will be fewer deaths. The new figures are absolutely astonishing. It is so sad that so many people are losing their lives.”
Scottish Drugs Forum chief David Liddell believes methadone is linked to so many deaths because services are giving out doses that are too weak – leading to people fatally “topping up” with other drugs.
The administration of opiate replacements like methadone are managed by Dundee’s Alcohol and Drug Partnership.
Figures obtained by Scottish Labour suggest funding for ADPs has been cut by 6.3% in real terms in the last five years.
The Scottish Government said: “We have invested more than £746 million to tackle problem alcohol and drug use since 2008, with the bulk of our funding going towards local prevention, treatment and recovery support
3) Decriminalisation of users
There have been calls for drugs in Scotland to be decriminalised altogether.
Under such a move, those caught with drugs would not face conviction – but it would stop short of full-on legalisation.
In 2001, Portugal became the first ever country to decriminalise minor drug possession – while still cracking down on dealers.
Workers on the frontline in the country say decriminalisation has been a change for the better.
Andreia Alves (left) has been a social worker since 2015. She now works with Crescer, a harm reduction charity in Lisbon.
She said: “I think other countries should decriminalise – of course. It was a very important step but it is not the only one. It is very important that people are also getting support.”
In Portugal, people caught with a personal supply – under 10 days’ worth – are not prosecuted. Instead, they are sent to a hearing where a doctor, lawyer and social worker guide them towards help.
It has led to a drop in drug use and viruses like HIV that spread through shared needles.
Andreia added: “Before 2001 it was an epidemic – but people realised it was a public health question. We do what is possible to put people in treatment.
“When you look at drugs as a crime and not a health problem you say the answer is to send people to jail. We have tried this and the problem just increased.
“Nowadays we have fewer people using drugs. The use of drugs is not as much of a problem.”
Joe FitzPatrick MSP believes Portugal’s decision saved lives.
“Had Portugal not made the changes it made about 20 years ago, then all the trajectories suggest it would have been in a similar position to Scotland now,” he added.
4) Dundee Drugs Commission
The Dundee Drugs Commission is set to deliver its recommendations and findings next month – and observers are holding out for a report that pulls no punches.
Convened in the wake of a 50% rise in drug deaths between 2016 and 2017, the commission has heard from all corners of society about Dundee’s current drug services. Experts have spent the last year giving evidence on topics such as “poly” drug use – using multiple substances at once – and how other parts of the UK support those with drug dependence.
Behind closed doors, the commission has also interviewed those who use drug support services in order to understand what needs to improve on the frontline.
Next month’s report will outline what is going well in Dundee – and, more importantly, what isn’t.
Dave Barrie, service manager at addiction support charity Addaction Dundee, believes the report will be an “up-to-date and accurate picture of services”.
“It has to have clear recommendations,” he said.
Dr Robert Peat, the chairman of the commission, told the Tele last year that he hopes to revisit the recommendations of the report in the months following its publication to ensure they are being followed and are effective.
Dr Peat, a social work expert, said last June: “What I’d like to see is that as the commission progresses – if new messages come out – we won’t hold them until the end .”