Scotland’s new drugs minister has vowed not to “close the door” on bold action to tackle the country’s overdose crisis, after a top US expert called on Scots officials to decriminalise with or without Westminster approval.
In an exclusive interview, Angela Constance admitted she will need to carry the can for any future failures after being appointed to her new role in December in the aftermath of the resignation of Joe FitzPatrick as public health minister.
Mr FitzPatrick stepped down following the release of harrowing figures that showed Scotland’s drug deaths rate is now higher than all EU countries and approximately three-and-half times that of the rest of the UK combined.
Michael Collins, originally from Glasgow and a former director at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, called on Scotland to tackle the crisis by pushing towards decriminalisation and daring officials in London to try to block it.
Ms Constance is to meet with Mr Collins, who is now working as strategic policy director for the state’s attorney for Baltimore, next month and said she is “really keen to hear what he’s got to say and listen to his experience”.
“Obviously his experience is in the context of America, in terms of the relationship between state and federal government, which is not necessarily the same relationship between Scotland and Westminster,” Ms Constance said.
“But I am not going to close the door to any evidence-led suggestions, ideas or approaches. Why on earth would I do that?
“It’s no secret – and I am so not trying to make a constitutional point – but there are constraints on what the Scottish Government can do.
“The reality is, the Misuse of Drugs Act is reserved and I have not yet found a devolved bit of legislation that would in any way trump a reserved piece of legislation. But we’re not closing the door to potential solutions.”
Ms Constance was present as Nicola Sturgeon chaired her first meeting of the drug deaths taskforce this week, after pledging to be more personally involved in the crisis.
The first minister will make a statement to MSPs next week, which, it is understood, will include specific details on actions and funding. Ms Constance declined to give more information on what will be involved ahead of the announcement.
It is anticipated the plan could involve getting more people into rehabilitation and treatment, and areas of emergency response identified as effective in reducing drug deaths, such as the distribution of anti-overdose naloxone kits.
Job on the line
Ms Constance, a former criminal justice and mental health social worker, insisted she is focused on the job at hand but admitted her position could be at risk if the measures announced fail to improve the situation this year.
She said: “I took office on December 22, we will know for sure what the drug-related deaths for 2020 are in July. I can’t, and I say this with deep sadness and regret, change whatever happened in 2020.
“But I am determined with my head, heart and soul to change what happens in 2021 – and of course I’ll be accountable for what happens in 2021.”
Ms Constance said she would like to see more powers come to Holyrood and the Scottish Government is consulting on drugs reforms “with a view so that the public is consulted and have come to a view about how we would use those powers in the event of them coming our way”.
However, she said she intends to engage with the UK Government in the meantime and already has a meeting set up with ministers “to discuss all of these matters”.
“In terms of right here, right now, my priority is to do what I can, and that’s about using the powers we do have to maximum effect,” Ms Constance said.
“Of course, there are limitations and frustrations for the Scottish Government in terms of us not having all the tools in our box because the Misuse of Drugs Act is reserved and remains reserved.
“Now I would, of course, like to see more powers come to the Scottish Parliament in relation to that but that’s not going to hold me back from really focusing on what we can do now – and that’s my priority.”
MSPs took part in a virtual members debate on Thursday where Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon called for £20 million of additional funding for the country’s drug and substance abuse treatment services.
Ms Constance agreed a “substantial financial resource” will be required to address the drug deaths issue and has promised a “full spectrum of services” to ensure anyone presenting with an overdose is offered treatment immediately.
“I very much believe in the power of residential rehabilitation,” she said. “I am on the record, and the first minster is on the record, saying we want to increase provision so that we’re at least on a par with European standards.
“As much as I believe in the power of residential rehabilitation, I also believe in the urgency and the need for emergency services that also reduce harm.
“Residential rehabilitation services don’t sit in isolation, they need to be connected with services in the community, and I’m also conscious that different people will need different services.”