On Monday more than 250 people will fill the Holyrood debating chamber to discuss one of the most important and complex issues of the day. Senior police officers, academics, community leaders and health professionals will be among those seeking to develop a "fresh perspective" on Scotland's approach to drugs and alcohol. This event, which will kick-start a year-long investigation by the Scottish parliament's Futures Forum, is timely. For if ever there was a subject that needed bucketloads less heat and shedloads more light, it's this one.
With an election in the offing, there is a real and present danger that debate will descend into a bidding war of hard-edged rhetoric and simplistic solutions. And that's the last thing Scotland needs.
If tough talking from politicians was the answer, the so-called war on drugs would have been won long ago. A decade ago, Scottish party leaders – kitted out memorably in T-shirts and baseball caps – joined forces as the then-Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth pronounced: "The drugs epidemic is a scourge as terrible as any mediaeval plague. Let us, as a nation turn back the tide of drug abuse which is engulfing our young people and threatening our civilisation." Ten years on tough talk still abounds, but it would be a brave – or foolish – politician who would claim the tide has been turned.
It's time to get real. The demonisation 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 or to reduce the scale of the problem in future.
The law of the land – as well as all of us as individuals, citizens and parents – should, rightly, set parameters of what we regard as acceptable conduct. But facing up to facts can and must be the starting point for any sensible debate, whatever its outcome.
Drugs – illegal or otherwise – are a part of our society. Human beings have sought out substances to change the way they see the world and how they feel since we worked out which leaves and berries to pick off the trees.
In the modern world the options are no longer just organic but include an ever-increasing number of synthetic chemical compounds. Globalisation has led to an illegal drugs market on a massive scale. Add to that tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs, and there is no shortage of substances available to those who seek them.
To acknowledge the scale of the challenge is not to admit defeat. Simply wringing our hands or putting this in the "too difficult" bundle would be as unrealistic as it would be negligent. But so too is it a folly to suggest that there are quick fixes to this most complex of problems.
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. For example, it is nonsense to brand the methadone programme a failure because only a proportion of people have become drug-free. What about the people who, with help from methadone, have moved away from criminal activity to hold down a job or to look after their children? Not to mention the benefits to wider society of stemming the spread of serious infections such as HIV and hepatitis C by reducing intravenous drug use.
Neither abstinence through residential rehabilitation nor maintenance through prescribing of drug substitutes is a solution in itself. But it would be utterly perverse if the answer to a failure to provide a range of options was to reduce the number of options available.
And what about children? "We'll take kids off the junkies" was one memorable tabloid headline last year. Whether it was journalistic hyperbole or the result of deliberate spin is neither here nor there. The fact is that removing a child from its parents is one of the most serious things the state can ever do.
Those who talk of drug users as being unfit parents should take a long, hard look at the range of poor parenting in our society and the different forms of neglect and abuse which happen. There is also the appalling track record of the state in looking after children, as shown again by a report published only last week. So let's not buy into the simplistic notion that plucking children from a drugs-using household is a panacea.
Above all, the aim of public policy should be to reduce harm of every kind; to individuals as well as to families, communities and society as a whole. The political debate should be driven by this imperative rather than by a desire to appear tough.
And what about the law? All too often the debate gets stuck on legalisation versus prohibition. Again the reality is much more complex. UK drugs control laws are more than 30 years old, a product of a bygone age. 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. Yet sadly the space for sensible and honest discussion seems to be inversely proportionate to the size and complexity of the task. It would be a crying shame if the only voices heard in the run-up to the Holyrood elections are those who talk the toughest and shout the loudest. Scotland deserves better.
By Susan Deacon
14 January 2007