The Pandemic of Problematic Drug Use: How best can we reduce the harm drugs pose to society?

by Katya Kowalski


On 29 September 2020, Tommy Sheppard from the Scottish National Party presented a bill declaring problematic drug use is a public health emergency. Sheppard did a phenomenal job putting much needed pressure on the government to address this issue.

The bill pushed for the following:

  • Introducing safe drug consumption facilities
  • Recognising drug dependence as a health condition
  • Amending the legal classification of drugs
  • Decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.

Why is this bill so important? Scotland has the highest drug death rate in Europe. There were 1,187 deaths as a result of substance misuse in 2018. The graph below puts these deaths in perspective to other European nations.

The death trend in Scotland has also been increasing at a worrying rate over the last 20 years. What this shows is that without a shadow of a doubt, our current drug policy is failing us. This requires action to be taken.

Instead of viewing problematic drug use as a health issue, the UK government has continued to criminalise and stigmatise people with substance use problems.

Addiction is a product of severe trauma, mental health problems and psychological distress. Criminalising these individuals is not going to make addiction go away, rather throwing them into deeper pain.

Through seeing problematic drug use as a health issue, we can get these individuals to reconnect with society and with themselves, in order to lead a fulfilling life. Through getting these individuals the help they require, their lives will improve.

Supervised drug consumption sites are imperative to reduce the harm drugs pose. They are a safe space where illicit drugs can be taken under medical supervision. This service massively reduces overdose deaths, along with the transmission of blood borne diseases. Safe consumption facilities are also an excellent way for users to have contact with healthcare staff, increasing the likelihood of seeking medical help.

By decriminalising and making consumption safer, the risks associated with problematic drug use are immensely reduced.

But will this alone solve the issue?

Digging deeper, health services must streamline the way in which individuals are treated.

We know that addiction and mental illness are two sides of the same coin. Addiction is a display of deep-rooted psychological pain. Despite their comorbidity, health services often view addiction and mental illness as separate entities. For instance, addiction treatment centres will often instruct individuals to get help for their mental illness first, and vice versa.

Substance use and mental health issues are largely comorbid. We have got to make accessibility to these services easier through integration. One cannot be solved without attending to the other.

Katya Kowalski is a University of Bath MSc Health Psychology student and aspiring academic. She has an avid interest in addictive behaviours and drug policy reform.

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