SCOTLAND’S drug policy must be reformed to save lives, with addicts given health care and support rather than being sent to prison, according to families grieving loved ones who have died due to drug addiction.

The renewed call for the decriminalisation of drug possession was made as families, campaigners and people in recovery came together last week to hold a public remembrance service in Glasgow’s George Square marking the lives of over 2000 people who died due to drugs, alcohol and suicide.

Last year 934 deaths in Scotland were related to drugs, the highest number since records began and those working with addicts fear numbers could top 1000 this year prompting a call for the Scottish Government to declare a public health emergency.

Mothers attending the event, organised by the Scottish Recovery Consortium, told the Sunday National that stigma around drugs was “killing our kids” and said it was time for radical change, including decriminalisation. It is argued changes to the law could keep thousands out of prison and push them towards recovery instead.

Their demands were backed by the Scottish Drugs Forum, which said that while decriminalisation was “not a magic bullet” criminalisation was failing to stop drug use and deaths.

Caroline Butler, a retired nurse from Aberdeenshire, whose son Kevin died of a heroin overdose 17 years ago, said: “I don’t know why we treat people who are addicted to drugs as criminals. How that helps I have yet to hear. Because of [my son’s] habit he ended up stealing and was then in prison. Once in the prison system he found himself deeper into criminal life.”

Butler, who also runs the Substance Bereavement support group, said she had written to Joe Fitzpatrick, minister for public health, in recent months asking him to consider decriminalisation. “I wrote that it needs to be a public health not criminal justice issue,” she said. “But in his reply he said that we haven’t got the power as its not devolved from Westminster. I feel like people’s morals are killing our kids.

“I’m not trying to say it’s easy but there must be a way round this. We shouldn’t be sending addicts to prison, we should be getting them help.”

Another mother, who did not want to be named, who lost her son following a drug overdose last year said she agreed with Butler. “I think people should be allowed to take drugs legally a clinic and slowly come off from there,” she added. “I feel strongly that drugs should be decriminalised. If addicts could go legally somewhere to get a fix then that would end the stronghold of the drug barons.”

David Liddell, CEO of Scottish Drugs Forum, agreed that it was time to stop treating those with drug problems as criminals. According to the Prison Reform Turst 62 percent of prisoners in the UK reported using drugs in the 12 months prior to imprisonment.

“Criminalising people is ineffective in initiating and supporting the changes in people’s lives necessary for them to make progress around their drug use,” he said.

“Decriminalising possession of drugs is not a magic bullet but would be part of a range of interventions – improved access to quality treatment and other policy for example around housing and employability which would better act to address problem drug use.”

The appeal for a new approach comes as the Scottish Government launched its new draft drug strategy, which includes proposals that police are given discretionary powers allowing those with small amounts of drugs to be given a warning, rather than charged. At the moment the powers only apply to those found with small quantities of cannabis.

Some senior Police Scotland figures have spoken out about their support for a health – rather than criminal justice – approach with Tayside’s new police commander Chief Superintendent Andrew Todd last week warning that though cutting drug deaths must be a priority it was not possible to “arrest your way out of that problem”.

Detective Inspector Allan Elderbrant from Police Scotland’s Substance Harm Prevention team added: “Whilst enforcement of drug related offences remains a core function for police, it is acknowledged that many substance users in Scotland have complex medical needs and health issues, often from long term and problematic substance use, and therefore require support to address these issues.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said it did not support decriminalisation but would like to have control of drug laws, currently reseved to Westminster. “We believe responsibility in these areas should be devolved for the Scottish Parliament.’’


THE lights turn from red to green, car engines rev and buses chug on past. But for just one minute hundreds of people – gathered in George Square to remember those who had lost their lives due to drugs, alcohol and sucide – stand still and silent.

It’s a day of sunshine and showers, a day for Scotland’s growing recovery community to remember the mothers, brothers, sons, daughters and friends who struggled with addiction or poor mental health but didn’t survive to tell the tale.

Amongst speakers is Caroline Butler, a retired nurse who lost her son Kevin to a heroin overdose 17-years-old and after a ten year battle with drugs.

“After Kevin died and the family had grieved I wanted to make sense of why this had happened,” she tells the crowd. “I didn’t want Kevin to be defined by his addiction. I wanted people to know that he was loved and cherished, and that he loved and lived.”

She is also here, an unlikely campaigner in a neat tweet suit, to call for Scottish drug policy that is “fit for purpose in that it looks at helping the individuals and not punishing a vulnerable population. We can make this happen in Scotland”.

Afterwards she leads me to a bench where a group of women, who have all lost sons and daughters huddle together. For Maria – as I agree to call her – the loss is still very raw. Her son died on 7 January last year, a day after his 31th birthday, of an Fentanyl overdose, the first in Scotland.

“He bought Fentanyl on the dark net with bitcoin from China so it was untraceable,” says Maria, a psychiatric nurse. The last time she spoke to him was on his birthday, the day before she left on a a trip to Australia and he promised to see her as soon as she returned. Twenty-four hours later he was dead.

“I’m feeling guilty all the time – what should I have done that I didn’t do? I know that it’s not my fault but it’s still so very hard, the feeling of guilt never leaves you.” She wants to see more openness, less judgement, better drug laws and more access to rehab and support, to make sure no others mothers have to struggle through these waves of pain.

But there is hope here too. Scott Ferguson lost his little brother 23 years ago, along with a couple of decades of his own life to an addiction to heroin and prescription tranquilizers. He says the stigma associated with addiction left him feeling “less then, unworthy, not human”.

But finally, after nearly fetching up dead in hospital, he found the Forth Valley recovery community. “And I saw people who were happy, who were enjoying their life while I was walking about like a small bucket of depression,” he says. “I thought “I want some of that in my life”.”

He stopped illicitly topping up his methodone prescription, worked his way off it over many months and did volunteer training with the recovery group. His face lights up as he talks about the job he got in January – his first legit employment aged 45 – as a recovery development worker and the power of showing people recovery is possible.

“We are not scum of the earth,’ he says. “We are human beings who are trying to deal with life. My coping mechanism was to use different substances because I couldn’t handle feelings.”