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What's Actually Been Happening with Drug Policy Reform in Scotland?

With recent talk of "fix rooms" and hopes to decriminalise medicinal marijuana, we take stock of where the Scottish government stands on drugs.

(Photo by Psychonaught via)

With the much-hyped sequel to Trainspotting headed to cinemas in early 2017, Scotland's fractious relationship with drugs will, once again, be firmly in the spotlight. It's more than two decades since we were first introduced to Irvine Welsh's grimy depiction of Edinburgh and its heroin-using underclass. As alluded to in the newly released trailer for the sequel, T2, a lot has changed in the intervening years: Princes Street has trams, the world has Facebook and Scotland even has its own parliament.


Renton, the film's protagonist, is asked during the trailer: "Do you still use heroin?" He doesn't, it turns out, but not everyone from the real "Trainspotting generation" – the despondent young heroin users of the 1980s – has been so fortunate. In fact, they are dying in record numbers. Last year, drugs deaths in Scotland crept up to a high of 706, a number that's more than doubled since 2005. Of those deaths recorded in 2015, 86 percent were related to either heroin or the prescription drug used to substitute it, methadone.

"This is a legacy of Scotland's drug misuse which stretches back decades," said the Scottish government when the figures were published, adding that the number of young people taking drugs was reducing. At the other end of the problem, a recent report claims that two-thirds of Scotland's organised criminal gangs are involved in the drugs trade.

So far, so familiar: a few notable exceptions aside, most of the world remains tied to the same model of prohibition that has never done much to stop anyone from taking drugs, or reduce the harm caused by them. In April, the first major session on drugs by the UN in 18 years saw a reaffirmed commitment to the "war on drugs", despite growing calls for an alternative approach. But could Scotland be starting to see some signs of change?

Ronnie Cowan MP is, perhaps, an unlikely crusader for drugs reform. Elected in 2015 as part of the SNP tsunami that swept the country, he represents the coastal constituency of Inverclyde, 15 miles west of Glasgow. Earlier this year, Cowan was invited to a meeting organised by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in the Houses of Parliament, a group comprised of former police officers who campaign for drug decriminalisation. He soon became a convert to the cause.


"I walked away from that night thinking that Scotland and the UK have a drug problem and we don't seem to be doing anything about it," he said to a busy meeting in his constituency last week. "Everything I read and researched brought me back to that – we've been getting it wrong for a very long time."

Keen to widen the conversation, Cowan had brought LEAP and other advocates of drug reform together for a town hall meeting this week. As well as starting a discussion about the issues locally, the gathering asked how Scotland can advance the cause of drugs policy reform, particularly with signs of a gradual change in thinking taking place.

"It might not be too obvious at the moment, but there is some real change going on in Scotland just now," Mike McCarron of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation Scotland told VICE. "At Scottish Government level, they have moved the Drugs Policy Unit from the justice department to health, which has happened within the last six months. That is a very important move, making that shift towards health rather than criminalising people."

While that switch happened with little fanfare, a bold announcement by city health authorities in Glasgow on Sunday sparked a miniature meltdown among some sections of the media. "Heroin could be 'legalised' for addicts as young as 16," screamed a headline in the Scottish Mail on Sunday, as it warned of plans for a facility where "pampered users of all ages pump themselves full of freebie drugs."


In reality, the plans being put forward are far less sensational, and are the norm in many developed countries. However, the proposed "fix room" – a supervised environment where drug users could inject safely, and a limited number provided with clean heroin – would be the first of its kind in the UK, meaning there are legal hurdles to overcome. For those behind the plans, they represent a key step that Scotland could take to reduce its spiralling drugs deaths, with a wide body of evidence pointing to their success elsewhere.

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The commitment of the SNP government to reform is hard to gauge, however. In 2014, the Scottish Government effectively buried a report by their own experts that recommended looking into prescription heroin and drug consumption rooms, citing the "ethical and legal issues raised by such proposals". Their line doesn't appear to have changed since, although it's hard to believe that they would attempt to block the Glasgow pilot, which is backed by the police and health authorities.

But if heroin handouts are still a bit much to stomach for some, there are other areas where Scotland has led the way in making practical, life saving changes. The national Naloxone programme, which provides heroin users with take-home kits that can reverse the effect of an overdose, continues to be a success. At the start of this year, Police Scotland relaxed their policy towards those carrying small amounts of cannabis, meaning they now have the discretion to issue warnings rather than passing cases to the prosecution service.


"Some of these moves are small but they are important, as they are opening doors to further discussion," said Mike McCarron.

In October, the SNP conference voted in favour of decriminalising cannabis for medicinal use, although there is no indication of the government pursuing this policy which, in any case, is still reserved at UK level. Previously, Nicola Sturgeon has said that she is "not in favour of general decriminalisation" when it comes to cannabis, although does believe that "there is a specific case for medicinal use."

So those hoping Scotland, free or otherwise, is about to suddenly free the weed may be disappointed. Nonetheless, the ground is starting to shift, and the direction of travel seems favourable to those campaigning for reform.

"It's a slow process," said Ronnie Cowan. "I'm not promising that we can do this in a year or two years. It will take a long time to gather steam."


More on VICE:

The Real-Life Addicts Who Taught the 'Trainspotting' Cast How to Be Junkies

The Forgotten Story of How Scottish Train Drivers Tried to Derail the Iraq War

An Oral History of 'Trainspotting', Twenty Years On