Drug users need compassion, not custody

Westminster committee hears voices of Scots with experience of addiction during an inquiry into problem drug use.


The current approach of criminalising people who use drugs is making the problem worse and needs to be drastically overhauled, an influential committee of MPs has been told by Scots with personal experience of addiction.


Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee is investigating problem drug use in Scotland, including whether the Scottish Parliament needs more powers to deal with rising drugs deaths. Drug-related deaths are at the highest level on record in Scotland, outstripping England and many European countries.


Meanwhile, the Scottish Government and the Home Office are locked in a standoff over whether to allow a safe injecting facility in Glasgow. Supporters say the facilities, which are used in Canada, are proven to save lives but the UK Government has refused to change the law to allow such a move.


At an evidence session held last week, witnesses said prison sentences were harming, not helping, people who use drugs.


Hannah Snow, a 26-year old from Aberdeen who grappled with misuse and addiction for 13 years and who has been abstinent for the past 18 months, said:


“I experienced custodial prison sentences for supply of a controlled substance, so selling drugs, and possession of drugs, is not a deterrent — for me, anyway; I can only speak for myself.”


She continued: “What benefits are you getting from sending a known drug user into prison to do a drug sentence, who will get released to do the same thing? Enforce an order that has to put them through a recovery-based programme, instead of putting them into a criminal procedure programme where the cycle just starts again.”


“…A third of criminals who are released from prison are in addiction or have had addiction problems since they went into prison,” she added. “What hope do they have if they are just released?”


Elsewhere in the session witnesses told MPs their time in prison had been introduced them to more harmful substances such as heroin.


Also giving evidence was 45-year old Scott Ferguson, who called for possession of drugs for personal use to be decriminalised along the same lines of Portugal and Canada, and the money released from the justice system diverted into treatment and recovery programmes.


He went on to suggest a compassionate response was key, telling the panel of MPs the “first bit of empathy” he received from a support worker had given him hope he could recover:


“My “[criminal justice worker] was doing a lot of linked casework with my community alcohol and drug services worker, so they were singing off the same hymn sheet and knew what stage I was at.


“That was the first bit of compassion and empathy…I felt worthless because that was where my direction had taken me.


“I was in and out of homeless accommodation and I just couldn’t get it until I got shown that compassion and empathy, and I got that sense of belief in myself for the first time that I could maybe change.”


This story was supplied as part of our partnership with healthandcare.scot.