Scotland’s Minister for Drugs Policy has admitted people are still being “let down” by addiction services and said she is “deeply sorry” for those who have not had the right help to address issues with alcohol and drugs.
She described the situation – which in 2020 saw 1,339 die drug related deaths and 1,190 people die due to alcohol – as Scotland’s “second public health emergency” after Covid-19.
But she insisted that the “national mission” to reduce drug and alcohol harms, announced by the First Minister last January along with an investment of £250m over five years, showed commitment to practical and “cultural” change.
Angela Constance was speaking to The Ferret and the BBC ahead of a co-produced documentary – From the Margins – which will air on Monday, 28 March at 8pm.
A series of stories looking at overlapping issues including homelessness, addiction, mental health, trauma and the care system will also run on The Ferret this week, as part of a series of the same name.
The film and stories have been created in collaboration with a small team of citizen journalists, mentored by The Ferret, who have direct experience of addiction, homelessness or mental health issues.
While drugs laws are reserved to Westminster and can only be changed with the UK Government’s say so, health and social policy are devolved to the Scottish Government.
The team spoke to people in both Glasgow and Dundee who said they had “lost years” because they had not been able to access adequate support.
We spoke to women whose children had been taken into care after they did not get support, and others whose family relationships had broken down. Some, who will feature in the BBC programme, had become street homeless.
The film also features interviews with a Glasgow man called Michael, who although he has a home and a methadone prescription to address his heroin addiction, is struggling to get a place at a crisis centre to help him safely detox from alcohol.
In response to our findings, Constance said: “I’m deeply sorry for every person in Scotland who has been harmed because of the way in which services sometimes create barriers. It has to be individual, it has to be tailored.
“I know that’s a huge change, not just in terms of how we reform and organise services and it’s a huge change for us as a country. We need to be challenging stigma. And we need to be asking what happened to you, as opposed to what's wrong with you.”
She added: “Things are changing. But we will all have to learn to run faster.”
The From the Margins team heard from several women at Dundee’s Steeple Church recovery group who said they didn’t get the right help with drug and alcohol addictions, or mental health problems, and had children taken into care.
Dundee Drug and Alcohol Recovery Service and NHS Tayside said "new models of working will mean mental health and substance use services will work more closely together".
A community wellbeing centre, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, opens later this year.
This story strand was led by citizen journalist, Michelle, who has experience of alcohol addiction but is now in recovery and caring for her children at home.
Constance said: "I know there are women and children that have been let down and it’s my job, and the job of Scottish ministers as a whole, and local services to make amends by that.
"[We] can’t always make amends for the past, but we can make amends and have a different future. So we need to reform our services."
Referring to figures on suspected drug deaths published on 15 March which showed 356 women died, an increase of three per cent compared with 2020, she claimed there was “a strong link between that and their grief in terms of losing their children” and the disproportionate number of women dying.
The From the Margins team also spoke to people who said they had not been able to access residential drug and alcohol rehab.
This story strand was led by Tam, another of our citizen journalists who after many years of sleeping rough and struggling with addictions to street drugs and alcohol, finally managed to get help including detox, rehab and counselling. He has been in recovery for five years, has reunited with family and is in full-time employment.
Last November the Scottish Government announced that everyone who wanted rehab would have access, with an aim of having 1,000 funded places made available by 2026.
A report by its residential rehabilitation working group, chaired by Dr David McCartney, was also released in November. It found there were multiple barriers for those trying to access both rehab and after care.
Constance said: “It’s not acceptable not to have a care pathway into residential rehab. It’s not for everyone but it has to be part of that recovery orientated system of care, and part of that whole system of care.”
It is estimated that even when the rehab target is met, it will constitute only about five per cent of people in drug and alcohol treatment. The vast majority expected to continue to rely on community-based addiction services.
These services, it is claimed, have the potential to save the greatest number of lives. But the provision has been criticised and new treatment standards, announced last year.
Called the Medication Assisted Treatment standards, they require addiction services to offer “same day prescribing” – including opiate substitutes like methadone and buprenorphine – as well as appropriate levels of psychological support and therapy.
Previously, Constance told the Scottish Parliament she was “very serious” about them being implemented by an April 2022 deadline.
However The Ferret has been told this is still far from the case.
Constance did not respond directly to these claims but added: “We have to stop looking at drug and alcohol services in isolation. Because the root causes of drug and alcohol use are complex. And that means people will need more than one service.”
Citizen journalists interview minister
Our citizen journalists, Tam and Michelle, met Angela Constance to discuss the findings of our From the Margins investigation.
Watch our From the Margins documentary, co-produced for the BBC’s Disclosure, at 8pm on BBC One.
From the Margins is co-produced by citizen-journalists, supported by The Ferret to investigate the overlapping issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health and more. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month.
Use discount code, Sale10, for two months full access for free. Students and people on low-incomes may qualify for a free sponsored membership.
With thanks to Shelter Scotland’s Time for Change Glasgow team.
Cover Photo Credit: Scottish Parliament