Ronnie Cowan MP: We need to treat drug addiction as an illness that can be cured
SNP MP Ronnie Cowan writes for PoliticsHome explaining why his views on the war on drugs have changed.
A few months ago I stumbled across an interesting event at Westminster. Amidst the myriad of lobbying events there was one about ending prohibition on drugs. My views were quite straightforward, the bad guys deal in drugs, doing harm to often vulnerable people, and the good guys fight them. We need to give the good guys the resources required to win the war on drugs. My cosy conceit was about to be shattered. The folk arguing to end prohibition were the good guys.
Now normally a top table of seven at such events is enough to have me running for the door. After a couple of speakers you get the message. I can honestly say that each person talking that night brought an openness and honesty to the subject that I hadn't encountered before. From FBI agents, British military, undercover police, addicts and individuals who had lost a family member to drug addiction, they all had their unique story to tell.
Under the current system in 2015 there were 706 drug related deaths in Scotland. That is the largest number ever recorded. It has more than doubled since 2005. In England and Wales there were 2,479 deaths during 2015 as a result of drug misuse involving illegal drugs. Clearly we are not winning the war on drugs. So when the experts start saying we should end prohibition, I think we have a duty to listen. When alcohol prohibition ended in Chicago back in 1933 the evidence says that violent crime dropped dramatically.
If the current war was working then I would be happy to step back and let it run its course but if it is not then we need to change tact. We need to change our attitude towards addiction and treat it as an illness and an illness that can be cured. There are signs that attitudes are changing and Glasgow is likely to go ahead with plans for “fix rooms”. These facilities allow addicts to inject under supervision.
There is also a plan for “heroin assisted treatment “where medical grade heroin will be injected. By refusing to demonise those with addictions we can work alongside them. The process by which we can provide safe, controlled dosages to users and then be in a position to help them reduce their intake, if that's their aim, needs to be defined. But currently people with a drug addiction don't know what they are putting into their body. Every injection could kill them. The dealer’s only interest in keeping them alive is to sell them more. By ending the stigma and not criminalising the users we can start to offer a path out of addiction and free up resources in the health service and criminal justice system. But if we push users into the arms of the dealers then we remove any opportunity to monitor, mentor and mend.
Ronnie Cowan is SNP MP for Inverclyde