AS the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee begins its inquiry into the high rate of drug deaths in Scotland – more than double the rate of the rest of the UK – health and addiction experts have repeated what they have known for some time: drug law must be reformed.

Organisations including NHS Health Scotland, alcohol and drug partnerships around the country and charity Addaction have made clear that UK-wide legislation such as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is standing in the way of the Scottish Government’s aim of implementing a public health approach to drugs.

This fact has been brought into sharp focus by the Home Office’s stubborn refusal to consider changing the law to allow for a supervised drug consumption room in Glasgow to help curb the spread of infection and manage risk. The sheer bullheadedness of the Tories on drug policy, in the face of all expert advice and evidence, is risking lives and preventing progress – but should we really be surprised?

To expect the Conservatives to change tack now on a policy of “clamping down” on drugs through the criminal justice system and instead treat it as a health and social issue would be to expect them to abandon the most basic tenets of conservative ideology. More than this, they’d have to admit how those ideas and the policies they’ve inspired have directly contributed to the crisis we are witnessing today.

At the heart of conservatism is a belief in individual responsibility, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and not blaming other people for your problems. At face value this doesn’t sound too difficult to get on board with, but the political implications of this world-view are less benign. If individuals make their own fate, and those who fall on hard times have done so through bad choices or bad luck, then there’s no point in the government introducing interventions to try to help them.

And if everything is viewed through the lens of the individual, how can you improve your circumstances? The hard questions are never asked about how personal experiences fit into the bigger picture and what this says about our society.

Looking at the whole, rather than the part, requires a political response, but conservatives are notoriously loath to admit that social problems have political causes. This mindset runs through the Scottish Conservative Party’s drug strategy, published at the end of 2018, despite being pitched as a more human approach which offers drug users a “second chance”.

At the time, the party’s shadow health secretary, Miles Briggs MSP, said that the strategy would give drug users a “choice – take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you get a second chance and avoid a criminal record”.

What the plan suggests is a sort of “two strikes and you’re out” system, whereby someone could avoid prosecution for a first offence if they agree to attend local drugs commissions and “receive treatment if necessary”.

If they’re caught a second time, they’ll “feel the full force of the law”. This is hardly a meaningful departure from the hard-line approach supported by the UK Government.

The reality is that while the Scottish Conservatives claim they want to ensure that drug users’ “first time is also their last time”, this will not be the case for people with problematic use – the people who actually require the kind of support they’re proposing to make compulsory. The people most at risk would continue to be criminalised, while support would be enforced on threat of punishment.

This is about as soft and gentle as the Conservatives can fathom being on an issue which they continue to frame as one where “offenders” just need to take more responsibility for themselves.

All of the evidence shows that people cannot be punished out of addiction, but to understand that you might need to understand some of the common causes of problematic drug use, which have very little to do with individual choice.

Statistics show that of the 10% of drug users considered as problematic users, a majority have experienced physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

Children who have other adverse experiences (such as neglect or a parent’s imprisonment, mental ill health or drug or alcohol problems) are at significantly higher risk of problematic drug use as an adult. Problematic use is also higher in areas of deprivation; in fact, 52% of all drug deaths in 2016 were in the most deprived areas, compared to just 3% in the least deprived.

Many of these factors are interconnected and underline the close relationship between socio-economic inequality and drug problems. These are facts which drive the agenda of organisations working to support people with addiction, including the health services seeking to implement harm-reduction strategies in the knowledge that problematic drug use is complex, closely interlinked with mental health issues and not something that can easily be switched off with a bit of personal responsibility or fear of a prison sentence.

But looking at this problem in the round demands major social change to address deep-seated inequalities – inequalities which are causing profound mental and physical harm to adults we have allowed to become vulnerable by failing to create a society which cared for them when they were young. To do this, the Conservatives would have to accept that they have not only failed to prevent this but fuelled it through social and economic policies which widen the gap between rich and poor and cut off support from those who need it most.

Added to this is the damaging effect that criminalisation and imprisonment has on any person, adversely impacting on relationships, employment, housing and mental health. This is hardly an experience which is likely to help someone end their problematic drug use.

It is with this in mind that the Scottish Government has adopted a “public health approach” in its drug strategy, focusing on prevention, community justice and “diverting those with problematic alcohol and drug use away from the justice system and into treatment, support and other interventions that reduce harm and preserve life”.

Others, such as SNP MP Ronnie Cowan, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, have advocated for decriminalisation, following a similar route to Portugal, which decriminalised possession for personal use in 2001, and has since seen a dramatic drop in addiction and new cases of HIV, hepatitis C and B among drug users. But while drug law remains reserved to Westminster, even the most gradualist legal reforms come up against a brick wall.

It was now 18 months ago that the Home Office declared it would not entertain the prospect of the recommended safe consumption room in Glasgow. Questioned on the matter in parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “Our aim should be to ensure that people come off drugs, don’t get on drugs in the first place, and then people keep clear from drugs.” When all of the evidence from the inquiry into drug deaths in Scotland points to the benefits of such a facility – which it will have – is Theresa May going to amend her position?

Given how deeply entrenched the Conservative Party’s stance on drugs is, I’m not so sure. Of course, if the UK Government won’t act on the evidence and the calls of experts to either amend the law or devolve the necessary powers to enable the Scottish Government to do so, it will make a mockery of the entire committee process. What’s more, such a strategy of ideologically-driven callousness would only serve to prove that gaining real political autonomy for Scotland could literally be a matter of life and death.