THE Conservative’s Holyrood justice spokesman Bill Aitken is no stranger to controversy and his plain-spoken attack on the methadone programme has re-ignited the debate about how best to tackle Scotland’s appalling epidemic of drug addiction.
The debate about the effectiveness of the methadone programme has raged since its inception and there has always been opposition to the principle of handing out free opium-based drugs like methadone to addicts. But there is much in the basis of the scheme to commend it, not least that it has the potential to place those on the programme outwith the reach of criminals. Something that means addicts no longer have to steal to manage their habit and keeps them out of the clutches of gangsters should be a good thing. However, too many just use the methadone as part of their daily drugs routine and find ways of selling it on, despite measures like forcing them to take it in front of the pharmacist.
But the biggest flaw in the current system is that there is no incentive for the addicts to wean themselves off drugs altogether. The methadone programme is only a means to manage the habit, not break it and that must change. There is a great deal of truth in the belief that addicts must genuinely want to give up before any treatment can be successful, and that applies as much to alcohol, nicotine and gambling as it does to drugs. But therein lies the weakness in the system – following the logic, why should alcoholics not get free booze if it helps prevent them following a life of crime? Of course, that would be absurd, but so too is supplying junkies with more drugs for as long as they want without any prospect of a cure.
The extent of drug addiction across the whole of Scotland is only one facet of a wider social malaise, especially in the sprawling sink estates. Edinburgh has its own well-documented drug problems, but its scale is dwarfed by the problems affecting places like Easterhouse. Why is it that some of these places have lower life-expectancy than deprived Third World countries? Why are thousands of people in a prosperous country able to see out their lives without ever doing a useful day’s work? And why is it necessary to lock up more people here than in most comparable Western countries? That there is a deep social malaise in much of Central Scotland is not in any doubt and the answer does not lie in throwing more public money at the problems without a radical re-think.
Bill Aitken’s description of drug addicts sitting “fat and happy” on the methadone programme might be over-blown – few of them are what any normal person would recognise as happy – but he does have a point. Free drugs on the state should only be part of a habit-breaking programme – anything less is little more than state-funded dealing.
Source: Edinburgh Evening News 17 March 2008