By Aidan Morrison, Socialist Alternative Scotland
Content Warning: discussion of drug abuse and dependency, mention of death and mortality rates
Each new report from the Scottish Government on the nation’s drug crisis unveils deeper layers of the ongoing tragedy. Especially in cities like Glasgow, now termed the ‘Drug Capital of Europe’. This distressing title isn’t a mark of dishonour bestowed overnight, but a chilling testimony to decades of neglect, economic deprivation, and failed neoliberal policies.
During January to March 2023, there were 298 suspected drug-related deaths in Scotland, a 5% increase compared to the same period last year. Men aged 35 to 54 were the worst affected, constituting two-thirds of these deaths. Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Lanarkshire are the hardest hit areas. These statistics are alarming, behind which are the personal tragedies of ordinary people, their families, and communities.
The Glasgow effect
The ‘Glasgow Effect’ – a well-studied phenomenon denoting the city’s notably high mortality rates and poor health outcomes, particularly when compared to similar cities – finds its origins in the policies and shifts of the Thatcher era, which marked a significant decline in the shipbuilding and textile industries – the backbone of Scotland’s economy and workers’ livelihoods at the time.
As a result of these policies and the consolidation of neoliberalism under New Labour, Glasgow faced a period of economic downturn characterised by high unemployment rates and financial and social hardships. These challenges have left deep scars on communities, paving the way for an array of health related issues, including the persistent drug crisis.
Glaswegians face a higher likelihood of adverse health outcomes, including prevalent heart diseases and specific types of cancers. Widespread poverty, poor housing conditions, and limited educational opportunities create a cycle of despair, leading many to seek solace in substance use as a way to cope with overwhelming challenges.
Impact of poverty
After a brutal decade of austerity pushed by Westminster and passed on by the Scottish National Party (SNP) at Holyrood and in local councils, the impact of poverty could not be more stark. Nicola Sturgeon’s seemingly more ‘caring’ PR profile during the pandemic, did not stop those residing in Scotland’s most deprived regions experiencing considerably higher mortality rates due to COVID-19 than those in wealthier areas.
This pattern holds true for many health outcomes, but it is especially evident in the case of drug-related sickness and death. According to the recent National Records of Scotland report, in 2022, those living in the poorest parts of Scotland were nearly 16 times more likely to die from drug misuse than those in the affluent areas.
Case study: Portugal
In the early 2000s, Portugal transformed its approach to drug policy. Rather than criminalising drug users, they turned to policies emphasising rehabilitation and social reintegration. A notable aspect of this shift was the introduction of safe consumption rooms, and the provision of prescription opioids as an alternative to dangerous street drugs.
Portugal’s reforms significantly lowered drug-related deaths, resulting in some of the lowest mortality rates in Europe. However, these policies don’t tackle the root causes of addiction. Amid the capitalist crisis, Portugal saw a 19% youth unemployment rate, with nearly two million living in poverty in 2020. This correlates with rising drug use, as Lisbon’s overdose rates nearly doubled from 2019 to 2023.
Glasgow’s safe consumption room pilot
Pushed from below by campaigners, the recent SNP proposition to initiate a pilot of a single safe drug consumption room in Glasgow barely scratches the surface of Scotland’s pervasive drug crisis.
Initiating a second lone pilot in Glasgow is a narrow approach that overlooks the widespread nature of the crisis, and the Advocate General’s stance only offers protection from prosecution for possession in the immediate vicinity of the facility, a provision that leaves users vulnerable to arrest during transit to the premises, perpetuating a cycle of criminalisation and fear.
We must demand, at a minimum, the decriminalisation of all possession for personal use. The SNP must willingly defy Westminster’s archaic Drug Misuse Act and integrate comprehensive and informed strategies, like prescription opioids at safe consumption rooms in every region, to truly begin to mitigate the impact of the drug crisis in Scotland.
Addressing the root cause
While reforms are undeniably crucial steps towards mitigating the drug crisis, they merely serve as a sticking plaster on the gaping wound that is poverty – a by product of the capitalist system that breeds inequality and destitution. Of course the SNP, wedded to this system as they are, cannot shirk responsibility for their role in the drug crisis. Nor can they be relied upon to bring about the radical changes necessary.
To genuinely address the crisis, it’s imperative that we get organised, and struggle for major investments in addiction services as part of a massively expanded and integrated, fully public NHS – including accessible mental health services for all. Tackling the problem at the root will also require fighting to reverse all cuts to community and social services, fully funded free education with living grants for all students, an hourly £15 minimum wage and mass council house building to provide high quality, actually affordable housing based on the needs of working-class families.
Taking the commanding heights of the economy into democratic public ownership would allow workers to develop a planned economy that works towards the elimination of poverty, alienation, and the many forms of oppression that fuel addiction. This can facilitate a more holistic approach to tackling drug abuse and its underlying causes, one that understands the connection between social questions and public health, and develops integrated public services that work in cooperation, not in silos.
Fight for an independent, socialist Scotland
The working-class aspirations for an independent Scotland arise from wanting to escape Tory-imposed austerity and inequality. However, the drug crisis in Scotland highlights broader systemic issues that transcend national boundaries. It’s a glaring reminder that the struggle against poverty is a struggle against capitalism, which is why International Socialist Alternative calls for a socialist independent Scotland as part of a free and voluntary socialist federation including England, Wales, and Ireland. Now, more than ever, workers in Scotland must forge strong bonds of solidarity with their counterparts across the world. Let us organise collectively, not just for survival, but for a future where everyone thrives.