Whenever I hear talk of decriminalising hard drugs, I think of “Hamsterdam”. That was the street name for an enlightened, albeit fictitious, decriminalisation scheme in the US TV series, The Wire, one of the most informed dramas about the impact of the drug problem on working class communities.
A sensible and humane police chief, despairing at how hard drugs were wrecking Baltimore’s black community, arranged for his officers to turn a blind eye to heroin and crack use in an uninhabited zone of the city. The results were initially pretty positive.
Health workers were able to locate and target drug users with medical help, counselling, clean needles, condoms. Police officers could intervene quickly if violence erupted. Children were no longer exposed to street drug culture and local neighbourhoods became peaceful again as the gangs moved off the corners.
Unfortunately, a not unsympathetic journalist got to hear of the experiment and wrote about it. Soon the place was crawling with TV crews filming people shooting up. Politicians, who had been largely on-side with the policy, did an abrupt U-turn. The police chief was sacked and officers returned, reluctantly, to locking up junkies and casual users alike.
The message is that it is easy to talk about decriminalising hard drugs, but difficult to implement it. Most voters finds the idea of police turning a blind eye abhorrent – understandably because these drugs are lethal. But if drugs are devolved and decriminalised in Scotland, as recommended by Police Scotland and the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, Scotland could become a nationwide tolerance zone.
Everyone agrees that present policy is failure. Drug deaths are off the scale: up nearly thirty percent in three years. Scotland has a worse death rate than anywhere in Europe. Drug charities, medical experts and psychologists are mostly agreed that the possession of hard drugs should no longer be a criminal offence. They have drowned out cautionary academics like Professor Neil McKeganay of Glasgow’s Centre for Substance Abuse Research who says that changing the law would increase drug use.
Certainly, putting users in jail, where they often get more drugs, changes nothing and wastes valuable police time. Junkies avoid treatment for fear of arrest. Criminal organisations make a fortune from unregulated drugs that are often adulterated. Young people are enlisted into gang culture. Communities end up dying from within.
The arguments are morally compelling. On the whole, I believe that people should be allowed to do what they want with their bodies. Drugs like alcohol and tobacco are legal and do great harm, yet we know from prohibition that banning them simply doesn’t work. It is already effectively legal to use soft drugs like cannabis without fear of prosecution in Scotland. This doesn’t appear to have led to an increase in usage here or in Canada and American states where dope is legit.
Portugal is the go to country for hard drug decriminalisation. Since it changed the law in 2001, there has been a marked decline in overdose deaths and from HIV. Opinion is divided, however, on whether its experience would translate to Scotland, where we seem to have a particular problem with intoxication, a predilection for getting off our heads.
Why for example are three and a half times more people dying from drugs here than in England? It may be that decriminalisation would only work if cultural and socio-economic factors are taken into account. We may need to tackle what some drug researchers have called called “SLS” Shit Lives Syndrome, if decriminalisation is to happen.
Let’s not fool ourselves with euphemisms. Decriminalisation means effective legalisation of Class A drugs for personal use, even if there is still a theoretical penalty in civil or administrative law. It means police no longer prosecute people for possession of heroin, cocaine, crack, opioid, benzodiazepines. Police are supposed to target the criminal gangs instead, but no one seriously believes that the pushers would pack up and leave. The international drug industry is brutally efficient at supplying demand and will likely adapt by reducing prices.
The problem with addictive drugs like heroin is that they rob people of the freedom to choose. They alter brain chemistry so that an individual no longer has control over their lives. Unlike soft drugs, such as cannabis, hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, spice and the myriad of synthetic opioids therefore do great social damage, through crime, gangs, health costs and family breakdown.
Everyone agrees that we should treat drug addiction as an illness in specialist centres. However, this is expensive and the number of drug rehabilitation places in Scotland has been in decline, partly because of Scottish government cuts. That’s not going to get any easier, post Covid.
Moreover, we have been treating drug addiction in Scotland as a health issue for many years. Addicts have been prescribed another opioid, methadone, but that hasn’t stopped the problem getting worse. As alcohol has become more expensive with minimum pricing, people appear now to turning to a wide range of cheap and uncheerful Valium-type drugs, like etizolam, which sell for as little as 50p a tab. There is also a range of cheap opioid painkillers coming on the market which are as addictive as crack.
Supporters of decriminalisation say it will “remove the stigma from drug use” as if users are an oppressed minority. This doesn’t of course mean condoning drug taking, but it would look rather like it. Most voters think there should be a stigma against reckless behaviour that harms others, just as there is a legal stigma against drink driving or smoking in public places.
In America the stigma against using opioids to treat chronic pain was removed in the 1990s, for the best of reasons. Legal pain clinics started appearing in small towns across the ‘States. Unfortunately that led to highly addictive substances, like Oxycontin, flooding onto the black market as people became habituated. By 2017, 47,000 people were dying from opioid use annually, and it became the largest single cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.
The drug company, Perdue, owned by the philanthropic Sackler family, made billions of dollars promoting its wonder painkiller, Oxycontin. They are now accused of promoting a drug that helped kill half a million Americans and enslaved a million more. But the problem is that Oxycontin, like other painkillers, was legal and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1995.
If, or more likely when, politicians in Scotland decriminalise drugs, as Police Scotland and newspapers like the Daily Record are demanding, they had better take legal advice first. If this leads to an increase in the use of the myriad new opioids and benzoiadzipam-related drugs, they may find themselves in court accused of failing to act to prevent avoidable harm.
Decriminalisation of hard drugs in Scotland, when it happens, will likely become a big story. TV crews will be crawling around Glasgow housing estates filming people shooting up in closes. There will be interviews with middle class Edinburghers snorting cocaine at dinner parties. Distraught parents lamenting the deaths of loved ones. It’s a brave politician who will tell them the truth: that if people insist on taking hard drugs many of them are going to die. Period.
(a version of this appeared in @heraldscotland)