A small team of student journalists and journalism academics from Penn State University in the US travelled to Glasgow at the end of last year to examine how Scottish healthcare professionals, advocates and activists are attacking the drug crisis here. They wanted to find out what was being done to tackle the high rate of drug deaths in Scotland which, although dropping recently, is still higher pro rata than anywhere in Europe.

Working in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde, they explored a range of Scottish initiatives which included projects to offer women more support, the introduction of a drug consumption room and moves towards drug decriminalisation. This is part of the Penn State report.

THE Scottish Government is determined to tackle what remains the worst drug death rate in Europe by bringing the world’s most progressive policies to an independent Scotland.

“It’s only natural that an independent Scotland would absolutely embrace decriminalisation,” Elena Whitham told the Sunday National in one of her last interviews before stepping down as Scotland’s minister for drugs and alcohol policy.

“We know that decriminalising drug use works hand-in-hand with seeing it as a health condition.”

The decriminalisation of all drugs is just one plank in a range of new initiatives unveiled recently.

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Another is a trailblazing pilot drug consumption room in Glasgow, which was finally given the green light last September. Users will be able to inject drugs in safety and under supervision without facing prosecution.

The Scottish Government is also rolling out a new overdose reversal drug, naloxone. The medication is available on a “click and deliver” service across the country, and community pharmacies are able to access it in emergencies. “Anyone in Scotland can get a kit to potentially save a life,” explained Whitham.

She also referred to the introduction of drug-checking at all sorts of different locations. She said: “With independence, you could have different models of safer consumption – some could be grassroots-led – and we would have a system that would put the needs of individuals at its heart."

Need for action is urgent

Drug deaths in Scotland reached a record high in 2020, when 1339 people died. It was by far the worst rate in Europe and a new record for the seventh year in a row. The figure fell to its lowest level for five years in 2022 – 1051 – but it was still Europe’s worst.

“Continuing on the line of the progressive policy that we’ve put in place in the public health sphere is the only way that we’re going to address this,” said Whitham. “Not by criminalising people and taking away their freedom or ability to come forward for help.”

That view is not shared by the Westminster government, which remains in charge of the control of drugs. It opposes drug consumption rooms – although Scotland’s Lord Advocate has said users will not be prosecuted – and decriminalisation.

READ MORE: Inside Scotland's drug consumption room

The UK Government refused to comment when we contacted them but referred us to this comment by a spokesperson: “Illegal drugs destroy lives and devastate communities.

We have no plans to decriminalise drugs as it would not eliminate drug dependence or prevent the illicit trade.”

Austin Smith, head of policy, practice and communication at the Scottish Drugs Forum, believes Westminster’s crime-focused interpretation of the Misuse of Drugs Act is divisive.

He said: “What they’re looking for within their own political constituency is to paint anyone who is arguing for any different kind of drug legislation or practice as ‘pro-drugs’. This is always the argument, that you’re either ‘anti-drugs’ or ‘pro-drugs’, and as long as somebody frames it that way, you’re not going to have a useful conversation.”

For SNP Glasgow MP Alison Thewliss, it’s essential that action is taken to prevent Scotland’s children and young people from bearing the brunt of the drug crisis. “

We need to ensure that they don’t feel as though they are trapped in that cycle, that they get all the support they require to deal with whatever trauma it is that they’re experiencing,” she said. “There needs to be an understanding of the needs of that group of young people as they grow up, moving through school, college, further education, university or to work.”

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Thewliss believes that once independence is achieved, the slate must be wiped clean in terms of substance use laws: “Scotland is starting to change things structurally – the underpinning legislation needs to be looked at right away. That is a priority because it’s something we can change, and we can decide to look at things slightly differently.

“It’s about changing that whole narrative – and the legislation – to say that this isn’t about criminal justice, this is about health.”

Smith is considering the possibility. He said: “The problem is, and I suppose the question is, ‘have you got a government that’s brave enough to do that?’ And I don’t think it would take a lot of bravery, I think it would take a lot of communication.”

Whitham knows exactly how independence could change the picture. She said: “We would be working to try to make sure that women’s needs are really addressed, that we start to think about black and minority ethnic groups that are using substances as well, to really drive forward that equalities aspect of it.

“If we had control over all the [economic] levers, we’d continue to reduce poverty, meaning that in the long run, fewer people are going to be reaching for substances in the first place. While we’re finding workarounds and trying to make sure we can implement these really progressive policies, having the power to do so ourselves would make it much easier.”

Lauren Hunter and Rachel Cronin are fourth-year journalism students at the University of Strathclyde