Recovering Justice; Peaceful Solutions: Drug Policy Session in Scottish Parliament

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This is a session of the Drugs Reform Policy Meeting held at the Scottish Parliament 12th December 2018.  Chaired by Pauline McNeill MSP, it brought together Fiona Gilbertson, Nanna Gotfredsen, Ina Roll Spinnangr, and Martin Powell to discuss international comparisons in drug policy with a view to examining the changes which need to take place in Scotland.


In the last year the number of drug related deaths has increased by 27% – a total of 1187 deaths according to the National Records of Scotland.  This makes it the highest levels since records began in 1996.


There were 1136 alcohol specific deaths in Scotland, which if you include the two combined, totals 2323 deaths in total.  Scotland’s drug death rate is higher than those reported for any other EU country.


The policies and practices to date have been increasingly failing and there is a large investigation coordinating civil service approaches to examine the problems which are earmarked by failing health and premature deaths in sections of the population.  For a long time now there have been calls for evidence based policy which creates problems in the shadow of the political system.


Politically the culture of election winning ‘tough on crime’ sloganeering has put parliamentarians, policing, medics and social services into corners where they are forbidden to act in supportive ways to facilitate drug using populations.


Whilst there is a significant amount of evidence for progressive ways and means of dealing with issues which come from drug and alcohol use, civil servants are often obstructed from implementing such evidence based solutions because of ideological pressure to do otherwise.


Key in this ideological pressure is the problematic and historic ‘War on Drugs’ which targets drug using populations as criminals. This view was crystallized by the US presiden Richard Nixon in 1971 as a means of criminalizing the black population and those in the anti war movement. This political manoevre was reported on in Harper’s Magazine where Dan Baum interviewed John Daniel Ehrlichman who was counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs:


“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


This dog whistle politics of dehumanizing and demonizing populations which use drugs has a continuing legacy which shapes policy and governments today.  The ‘War on Drugs’ populism has served to criminalize large numbers of people who are grossly marginalized as extreme outgroups.  These policies create more problems that they solve.


Recovering Justice coordinated the event in Scottish Parliament and is an organisation which is dedicated to understanding “people as being caught in a war; rather than treating them as criminals and punishing them they should be offered treatment and support”.  The panel who presented in the session all worked in the field and had some insight to offer into the reformation of drugs policy.


Chair: Pauline McNeill MSP

Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Equalities and Housing Pauline McNeill has been involved in pushing for reforms which are vital for quality of life examining tenant rights, fuel poverty, insecure work and the effects of low income on populations.  Spending significant amounts of time understanding the wealth inequalities in Scottish communities she has spoken out about how Universal Credit is “fast becoming the biggest driver of poverty, debt and homelessness”. Her work involves acknowledging the complex and interleaved issues which underpin societal problems including pushing for a radically altered approach to drug addiction.

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Fiona Gilbertson – Recovering Justice

Having been involved over the last 25 years in advocacy for sex workers and those who live with HIV, she has been challenging stigma and discrimination through pressing for policy change.  Close to her heart is the idea that people need to have their rights respected rather than be offered concessions in systems.  She has been awarded the Winston Churchill travelling fellowing having studied diversion schemes both in Britain and in the United States.  She is also a fellow on the Clore Experienced leadership program and consults for the chief constable of County Durham.

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Nanna Gotfredsen – Gadejuristen

Founder of Gadejuristen (The Street Lawyers) in Copenhagen, Nanna has been providing free legal aid to some of the most marginalised people in society including drug users, street sex workers and homeless people.  She set up Gadejuristen as an independent non profit organisation in response to what she saw as the inadequate treatment of the socially marginalised who were not getting sufficient support from the police and welfare system.  In an interview she said: “Some people were denied their rights – for instance, to treatment for drug use, or were not getting the benefit they were entitled to, because of maladministration. Having a lawyer to represent them increased their access to the rights they were entitled to, and this experience led to the establishment of the organisation and the practice of street lawyering”. Gadejuristen works at an individual level providing legal aid and outreach, and also operates at a societal level to shape policy through knowledge dissemination, lobbyism and education.  As well as this they offer supplementary social and economic support to the marginalized groups

More info: Outsourcing Legal Aid in the Nordic Welfare States edited by Olaf Halvorsen Rønning, Ole Hammerslev


Ina Roll Spinnangr – Association for Safer Drug Policies

Director of the Association for Safer Drug Policies, Ina Roll Spinnangr works to promote evidence based drug policies which are based on peer reviewed science, human compassion, understandings of health and a foundation of human rights.  Acting from grass roots perspectives her work emphasises that health and social problems that are related to drugs cannot be solved by “scaremongering and eradication fantasies” which cause the break down of trust in communities.  Such tactics, she argues, increase the risks associated with drug use and are detrimental to the mental health of people who use drugs.  Working to develop comprehensive drug policy with key aims to improve health and wellbeing of individuals and communities the Association for Safer Drug Policies orients its work around five core principles of The International Drug Policy Consortium that state drug policies should:

  1. be developed through an objective assessment of priorities and evidence
  2. be undertaken in full compliance with international human rights law
  3. focus on reducing the harmful consequences rather than the scale of drug use and markets
  4. promote the social inclusion of marginalised groups, and not focus on punitive measures towards them
  5. be developed and implemented based on open and constructive relationships with civil society.

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Martin Powell – Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Head of Partnerships at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, he works to minimise drug related harms to individuals and communities by helping to build a humane, just and effective system of regulation and control at the national and international levels.  Orchestrating research, policy analysis and develop new innovations in policy the organisation challenges government attempting to demonstrate rationales in fact based evidence.  He promotes evidence based alternatives to politicians, government and associated agencies as well as offering advice and support to those who work in areas which are affected by drug policies.  A key part of his work is providing an informed, rational and clear voice in the public media debate in Britain and on the international stage.

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