Monday, 13 March 2017

Preventing drug-related deaths speech

Hi all, just posting my unedited speech to Scottish Lib Dem conference for anyone who's interested:

Good afternoon conference.

The substance of this motion covers two main areas of concern. Deaths associated with MDMA-type drugs, and deaths associated with opiates such as heroin and methadone.

MDMA or ecstasy deaths had been averaging under 5 a year in Scotland between 2008 and 2012, but in the last three years the rate has jumped to 15 a year as the strength of ecstasy available has increased.

Regan MacColl took a fatal overdose of ecstasy in the Arches nightclub in 2014. After this tragedy the police instructed the club to bring in more stringent searches on the door.

We have to ask ourselves though what effect an escalation in security and enforcement will achieve in a nightclub queue. If a teenager is caught with ecstasy – a class A drug – they face potentially up to 7 years in prison and an unlimited fine. This is not helpful to that teenager, and it's not helpful to society. The deterrent effect isn't working. People are still taking drugs, they're just taking drugs away from places like The Arches with previously excellent safety records.

But greater enforcement can also bring tragedy beyond a criminal record.

17-year-old Emily Lyon had taken some MDMA on the way to a music event at the O2 in London last June. She had another dose with her that she planned to take later in the evening, but she hadn't expected there to be sniffer dogs on the door. Worried that her drugs would be detected, she consumed them earlier than planned. She was rushed to hospital feeling unwell and overheated before 10pm, but was dead before 1 in the morning.

A drug overdose killed Emily Lyon, but dumb enforcement of dumb law was the reason she died that night.

So what are the alternatives to enforcement?

I'm sure we've all seen warnings about high strength drugs in circulation in the media. In the UK these warnings tend to be issued after one or more people have overdosed or died, and the drugs batch have been traced and tested. In the Netherlands, they issue warnings without prerequisite tragedy because people are able to submit drugs for testing at one of many centres around the country.

Happily there is beginning to be progress on drug testing in the UK, with the charity “the Loop”, beginning to carry out testing at festivals and other events. They test pills and powders brought to them by members of the public, and give them advice on the content and strength of the drugs and sensible ways to stay safe.

It's a model that will save lives and it should be rolled out across Scotland as well.

It's not ecstasy that is the major contributor to Scotland's drug related death rate. It's heroin and other opiates that contributed to 6 in every 7 deaths in 2015.

Our drug-related death rate is far and away the worst in Europe, and while other nations' rates are steady or in decline, Scotland's has been steadily increasing, nearly tripling in the last 20 years.

If we weren't ignoring drug users these statistics would be Scotland's great shame, but heroin users are the last section of society that suffer from widespread prejudice, to the point of revulsion. The attention paid to them by politicians sadly reflects that fact. This has to stop.

As a party we have taken great strides in promoting the cause of those in society suffering from poor mental health and done our best to break down the stigma suffered. Research consistently suggests that two thirds of problematic drug users are self-medicating survivors of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. We can not claim to be the party of mental health if we leave drug users suffering in the shadows.

At long last, safe injection sites and heroin assisted treatment are being considered for Glasgow. But we have to recognise the relative implications of these measures.

Safe injection facilities allow people to use heroin in a safe environment with medical support. They are however, using street heroin, so if the batch of heroin they are using contains clostridium as happened in Scotland in 2000, or anthrax as in 2009, then they'll still be injecting clostridium or anthrax into their veins. These infections killed 34 people. Is this the model we want?

Problematic drug users are also the most impoverished group in society. Take normal poverty, then add a £100 a day inflexible need to consume a drug. Safe injection sites don't alleviate this poverty. The users still need to find that £100 from somewhere.

I became passionate about drug policy after watching a documentary many years ago now. A young woman was being asked by a tv crew why she continued to work the streets while someone was murdering prostitutes in her town. She replied “I need the money. I need the money.” Paula Clennell was herself murdered by a serial killer less than a week later.

You can no more snap out of heroin addiction than you can snap out of depression. Why should we force users to abandon their moral standards in pursuit of money to buy drugs. They almost certainly didn't start using drugs thinking that robbery, shoplifting, working the streets or drug-dealing was ok. How much of the self-medication with heroin is now for the shame they feel or the pain they've suffered from finding the money to pay for it?

We don't have to make them find that money. If we just provided the heroin in a clinic, then the user can stop breaking the law, can start thinking about jobs, family and housing. In all the studies done in many countries now, heroin is more effective and more cost effective than methadone at helping people get their lives back on track.

It also has the potential to get communities back on track. Put a clinic in a community where there are high levels of drug use and watch the dealers pack it in, watch the shops thrive without the shoplifting, see the red light district empty at night.

Where's the proof this would happen you may ask. Well it's happened already, in Merseyside in the 80s and 90s. Sadly the world wasn't ready for the drug war to end just yet, and the prescribing of heroin to addicts was rolled back. But between 1982 and 1995 Dr. John Marks didn't have a drug related death among his patients. Within 2 years of his prescribing practice ending 41 of his 450 patients were dead.

Heroin clinics work, and they're popular. The Swiss got to vote on it in a referendum and supported the policy by over 2 to 1.

We've tried locking up addicts, it's time to declare a war on drugs and try locking the heroin up instead, and just let the users come in for regular visits.

I've no experience of drugs myself. If you can't relate to the problematic drug user, then maybe you can relate to their family, as I do, having experienced a loved one go down an unexpected and distressing path. They finally found the right drug for my brother's mental illness and I got my brother back. There are over 60,000 problem drug users in Scotland. That's tens of thousands of families facing the dilemma no family should face. Do you hold your loved one close, and risk the damage that could do to you and the rest of your family, or do you push them away, and live a half life, in constant dread of the knock on the door from a policeman telling you they're permanently gone.

We know what the drug is that can give these families back their loved ones. The police in Durham are planning to pay for heroin for addicts because they know it too. Whatever level of government you are elected to, please put this on the agenda, if you aren't elected to anything, find an agenda to put it on. Write letters. Save lives.

Thank you.