LAST week, Channel 4 News carried a 15-minute report from Dundee which deserved to be splashed across the front page of every newspaper in Scotland. Instead, it was covered by the local Evening Telegraph – and pretty much ignored by everyone else.

Alongside harrowing interviews and chilling footage of drugs deals on the streets, the report revealed that during the month of January, a dozen people in the city were killed by illegal drugs. That’s more than the numbers killed in cars in the whole of Scotland in an average month.

And it’s part of a wider tragedy. Scotland today has the highest number of drugs fatalities per head of population than any other country in the European Union. The response of many, including even readers of The National, is likely to be something along the lines of … so what?

People gripped by addiction are not the most popular group in society. We may see them every day, begging in shop doorways, huddled in blankets, yet they are invisible – almost part of the street furniture in our city centres. For some, including prominent columnists in the right-wing tabloid press, they are junkie scum, subhumans who should be cleared away out of the sight of decent, respectable society.

The power of the Channel 4 News item piece was that it offered us a window into the human suffering and frailty of real people and their families, the desperation and sadness of lives broken by circumstances beyond their control. In the words of the American singer Joan Baez, there but for fortune go you or I.

Some of us old enough to remember the mid-1990s may recall the launch of Scotland Against Drugs – not least because of the cringe-inducing footage of a posse of politicians led by the then Tory Secretary of Scotland Michael Forsyth wearing a back-to-front baseball cap in a futile attempt to look cool. The founding of the organisation had been prompted by the shock announcement that there had been a record 244 drugs deaths in Scotland the previous year.

Scotland Against Drugs came and went, along with a host of other initiatives, including the Just Say No campaign and the Shop A Dealer initiative. The Daily Record even organised a 15,000-strong anti-drugs rally in Glasgow Green, where speakers included Jimmy Savile and Chancellor Gordon Brown – who announced that he would spend tens of millions of pounds to eradicate the scourge of heroin.

So, what happened? Drug deaths climbed higher … and higher … and higher. In 2016, 20 years after the launch of Scotland Against Drugs, the number of deaths had almost quadrupled to 867.

Over these decades, some voices did warn that failure was inevitable, and argued for a different approach. The Scottish Socialist Party argued for slashing the illegal trade in heroin by providing the substance free to addicts in a controlled, regulated environment – and was slaughtered in the tabloid press for its “irresponsibility”.

The then Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, also argued for a radical new strategy based on treating heroin addiction as medical problem rather than a crime. Kevin Williamson, the co-founder of Bella Caledonia, wrote a book, Drugs And The Party Line, setting out a compelling case for the Swiss approach to heroin addiction. But no-one was listening.

Switzerland in the late 1980s had the highest rates of HIV infection anywhere in Europe, mainly through the sharing of contaminated needles. It also had a drugs death rate far in excess of Scotland and the rest of the UK. So the government steered through radical new legislation, and the country opened its first heroin-assisted treatment clinic in 1994, before rolling out the programme nationwide.

In contrast to the failed war on drugs in the UK, the results in Switzerland were immediate and dramatic. While the death rate in Scotland has almost quadrupled, in Switzerland it has fallen by two-thirds. HIV rates have been slashed. Crime has fallen. And more than half of heroin addicts in Switzerland came off the drug within three years of treatment at the clinics. In a nationwide referendum in 2008, the country voted overwhelmingly to continue the programme.

The Scottish Government has shown its willingness to learn from Switzerland. Until late last year, it had been on course to set up a pilot safe injection treatment centre in Glasgow. But in November last year the project was abandoned after the Lord Advocate announced that he could not sanction the scheme until there was a change in the law. And the barrier to changing the law? The devolution settlement in which drugs policy is reserved to Westminster.

So, after 20 years and almost 10,000 deaths, the carnage continues. Had the Swiss model been put in place here 15 or 20 years ago, thousands of people who are now in their graves would be alive, free from their addiction and living fulfilling lives.

And while we wait for Westminster to at least give us the power to sort out this ongoing national tragedy, we should remember that many of the dead and dying are victims of past Tory governments – young people who left school in the 1980s and 1990s with hopes and dreams, before their lives turned bleak in a raging free market in which they were surplus to the requirements of society.

It’s too late to undo that damage. But we can – and must – protect this upcoming generation of young people from that dreadful abyss that was so graphically highlighted by Channel 4 News.