Scotland Ends Drug War, Sort Of

A flurry of newspaper headlines in the Scottish press over the weekend announced a pending drug policy shift in Scotland, but there may be less to the move than meets the eye. Both the Glasgow Sunday Herald and the Scotland on Sunday newspapers ran articles this week touting comments by Scottish officials named and unnamed about a soon-to-be released overhaul of Scottish drug policy. More than anything, though, the reports seem to herald a shift in emphasis from the shrill anti-drug propaganda of the Nancy Reagan school to less tendentious information-sharing in the harm reduction mode.

Dr. Richard Simpson, the deputy justice minister and point-man for Scottish drug policy, set off the furor with comments in an interview with the Glasgow Sunday Herald: "The only time you will hear me use such terms as 'war on drugs' and 'just say no' is to denigrate them," said Simpson. "I've never used the term 'teach children how to take drugs,' but what I would say is that we need to provide them with information. We need to say 'we'd rather you didn't take ecstasy, but if you make that decision, here are the risks,'" Simpson said.

"It is pretty clear that the 'just say no' types of messages have not had any effect," an unnamed source in the First Minister's office told Scotland on Sunday. "They are not leading young people to try to find out more information about drugs, which is the best way of preventing them from taking drugs and to ensure they are informed of the dangers."

Providing solid information is key, said Simpson. "We have to give them all the information they need to take responsibility for themselves," he said. "It's not about wagging a finger at young people as they won't pay attention to that, so it's not worthwhile. We've got to be very realistic and not say 'you're going to die if you take ecstasy,' what we will say is 'some people do die when they take ecstasy but we don't truly know why,'" he explained.

"We can't pretend that we're going to stop the availability of drugs," Simpson added.

Simpson and his boss, Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell, were reacting to a drumbeat of bad news on the drug front, including a recent finding by Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Education that pegged the number of hard-core Scottish drug users at 56,000, nearly double projections from 1998, despite decades of "just say no" drug policies pursued by Scottish governments of all political hues. A survey released last month only added to McConnell's and his Labor government's discomfiture. That study found that at least 40% of schoolchildren aged 12-15 had been offered drugs. The grim Scottish hard drug scene, immortalized in Irvine Welsh's novel, "Trainspotting" (later made into a movie), has led to as many as 6,000 deaths since 1980, with an average of 290 people dying of drug-related causes each year.

Now, the Scottish Executive will turn to harm reduction measures, such as drug treatment, methadone maintenance, and possibly, ecstasy testing kits, the press reports say. Simpson told the Sunday Herald there must be "adequate resources" for all drug abusers and attacked the use of imprisonment for drug offenders. "Drug addicts going into prison and coming back out again is a waste of public money," he said. "It neither addresses their offending behavior nor does it cut crime. It's purposeless. We have our priorities wrong," the Scottish drug czar said.

That will begin to shift with the formal announcement of the Scottish Executive's drug communication strategy later this month. According to reports in the Sunday Herald, Scotland on Sunday and the London Observer, the new campaign will use TV, newspaper and billboard advertising to provide harm reduction information to Scots. According to the Observer, Scottish drug authorities were concerned by poll results showing that while most Scots were aware of the police role in combating drug abuse, few were aware of the array of drug prevention and treatment services already available.

While Simpson agreed with British Home Secretary David Blunkett's plan to down-schedule cannabis and suggested that the issues of decriminalization and legalization "have to be addressed," there is no sign that the Scottish Executive is about to go beyond the harm reduction measures mentioned above. In fact, a spokesman for the Executive took pains to tell BBC that the measures should not be seen as a sign that the Labor government was "going soft on drugs." And just in case anyone missed the point, another unnamed spokesman told the Scotsman newspaper on Monday that there would be "no let-up" in drug enforcement.

But even the halfway measures hinted at this week are too much for local anti-drug crusaders. "The Executive needs to be very careful with its message," said Gaille McCann, cofounder of Mothers Against Drugs. "They are in danger of promoting drug use, which opens up more avenues for people to use drugs," she told Scotland on Sunday.


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