FOR many saloon bar and dinner table debaters, solving Scotland's illegal drugs problem is easy: get rid of methadone.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson can hardly be accused of hyperbole when she describes its use as "legalised drug-taking on an industrial scale".
Despite the SNP's much-heralded 2008 Road to Recovery programme, a record 24,500 people are now on the Government's methadone programme and many have been using it for 10 years or more. Yet drugs deaths continue to rise as more and more long-term users reach the end of the road . According to the latest figures, more of these deaths are linked to methadone than heroin, which it is intended to replace.
However, for lawmakers and those on the ground – doctors, pharmacists and community workers – tackling drug abuse is agonisingly complex and difficult. Often deaths involve a cocktail of different drugs.
Part of the problem is that there is insufficient reliable research on what works and what does not. There are no centrally-held statistics about the length of methadone use or how many have successfully used it to wean themselves off heroin. So yesterday's announcement that an independent expert group has been commissioned to gather evidence about the effectiveness of methadone and other treatments is most welcome. It is long overdue. As with the debate on universal benefits, it is hard to decide where to go if we do not know where we are and how we got here. We need a clearer picture.
Methadone cannot be simply abandoned. It is all that has kept many drug abusers alive. Often the heroin-substitute brings a welcome stability to the lives of users and removes them from a cycle of crime and punishment. In conjunction with the needle exchange programme, it has reversed the once-worrying level of HIV in drug users.
More information about other heroin replacements is required, though we may not like the answers. They are all likely to involve more intensive supervision and community support. These are precisely the services that are suffering from crippling local authority cutbacks. The bottom line is that no politician believes they will win votes by advocating more spending on supporting drug users and yet until this bullet is bitten, the problem will persist. It is a hard message in the current financial climate but it is necessary to spend considerably more now to save money (and lives) in the future. For too many methadone has too often been the only option on the menu.
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