Europe: Scottish Labor Politician Fights for Harm Reduction as Party Turns Hard-Line on Drugs

On the eve of a major conference on new approaches to Scottish drug and alcohol policy Monday, outgoing Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Susan Deacon, blasted her party's increasingly hard-line approach to drug policy, defended harm reduction approaches, and called drug prohibition "the product of a bygone age." The harsh critique of the Scottish Labor Party's disdain for methadone maintenance, push for abstention-based drug treatment, and enthusiasm for taking children from drug-using parents came in an opinion piece published in the Sunday Herald, "The Political Addiction to Tough Talking on Drugs Has Failed Us All."

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Susan Deacon
Deacon, the MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, is a member of the Scottish Royal Academy's RSA UK Commission on Illegal Drugs, Public Policy and Communities, which will issue a report in March. She is also a former Labor health minister who will retire after the next elections. And she is increasingly at odds with her bench-mates on drug policy. The party's recent moves toward abstinence-based "contracts" for addicts and away from previous support for methadone maintenance prompted Deacon to respond with vigor.

"The fact is," she wrote, "it's time to get real. The demonization of drugs and drugs users may make for rabble-rousing speeches and sensationalist headlines but it does little to promote understanding of what is really going on in our society, to help those whose lives are affected. Here in Scotland, we have seen too many knee-jerk responses and blanket solutions. Policy and practice should not be framed by immediate reactions to the latest tragic incident or research report. We need a pragmatic approach to drugs policy -- not a moralistic one."

The notion that methadone maintenance had failed was "nonsense," Deacon wrote. "What about the people for whom methadone has helped them to move away from criminal activity, to hold down a job or to look after their children?" Deacon called proposed moves to restrict treatment options "utterly perverse" and said the idea of taking children from drug-using parents was "paternalistic and simplistic."

But while she explicitly defended harm reduction as a policy approach to drug problems, Deacon also attacked drug prohibition. "UK drugs control laws are more than 30 years old, a product of a bygone age," she wrote. "A growing number of voices, both at home and abroad, are raising questions about whether the current national and international legal framework is fit for purpose -- this discussion cannot be a no-go area."

Oddly enough, Deacon's intra-party foe on drug policy, MSP Duncan McNeil called her critique "conservative." McNeil, who first proposed the idea of "contracts" for drug users, said of Deacon: "The harm reduction policy was well meant and necessary, but things move on. Susan has her views on this subject but she has become very conservative.
"The Labor Party has gone through an extensive consultation on this, but Susan didn't take part in the debate on it at conference."

While her own Labor Party was one target of Deacon's opinion piece, she also aimed to inoculate Monday's Scottish parliament's Futures Forum from more reflexive drug fighter chest-beating. The forum brought together more than 250 senior police officers, academics, community leaders, and health professionals seeking a "fresh perspective" on Scotland's approach to drugs and alcohol.

According to one account of the forum, Deacon may have found a more receptive audience there than within her own party. That account found leading police official and drug policy experts talking bluntly about the need to get beyond "macho posturing" and how the Misuse of Drugs Act was "not fit for contemporary purpose."

With endemic heroin and alcohol abuse, and now, the newfound popularity of cocaine, Scotland is in need of new approaches to drug policy. With politicians like Deacon fighting regressive tendencies in her own party and ongoing efforts like the Futures Forum and the RSA UK Commission on Drugs underway, Scottish politicians will have the knowledge base to act. Whether they will have the political will to apply that knowledge remains to be seen.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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methadone

I agree absolutely with Ms. Deacon. Methadone patients who are doing very well on treatment and who have regained their lives are deemed treatment "failures" if they remain on methadone longer than 3 years. This despite the fact that methadone is a medication for a chronic, incurable condition. Many opiate addicts have all but destroyed their own natural endorphin systems by their drug use or even have the misfortune of being born with low endorphin levels. No amount of abstinence will correct this for some addicts, and the misery of living in a state of absolute anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure in anything) drives them to relapse again and again. Methadone merely restores them to a normal level of function when taken in an adequate dosage and not mixed with other drugs. To remove addicts from this treatment against their will is to invite relapse.

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