There's a cognitive dissonance at play when interviewing drugs and alcohol minister Elena Whitham. So invested is she in her sense of herself as a “disruptor” - so vivid is the portrait she draws of a punky young Elena running with La Ligue Anti-Fasciste Mondiale on the streets of Montreal - you have to keep reminding yourself she is now at the heart of the establishment.

Whitham finds it equally difficult to believe. But then she has her green-mohawked 15-year-old daughter Sophie to satirise her journey from seditionist to “sell-out”. “She taunts me with the lyrics to one of my favourite songs: No by the Subhumans,” Whitham laughs. “She sings the line: ‘You’re just part of what I despise…Yes, you’re part of the f***ing system. I ain’t blind, I can see your lies’.”

Whitham is fresh out of First Minister’s Questions when we meet, and surrounded by the trappings of office. On the wall above her desk is a photograph of Ailsa Craig - a throw-back to her Ayrshire roots. From her window, she can see Salisbury Crags. Like the protagonist in Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, she must look from one to the other and ask: “Well, how did I get here?”

“I adored the Dead Kennedys, The Exploited, Black Flag and their message of anarchy,” she says. “If someone had asked me at 15 if I would ever be a government minister I would have died laughing. But fast forward into middle age and I know we need disruptors within the system to press for change in tandem with those external forces.”

One of the reasons I wanted to interview Whitham was that, in the days after the Lord Advocate gave the go-ahead to Glasgow’s Drug Consumption Room (DCR) pilot, she came across as personally invested in her brief. She is passionate about ending “the false dichotomy” between harm reduction and abstinence in part because she watched her own cousin make the journey into recovery. “That [dichotomy] shouldn’t exist because [recovery] is a continuum, and people will find themself at different parts of that continuum at different times,” she says. “It’s about meeting people where they are.”

I know we need disruptors within the system to press for change in tandem with those external forces.

Another reason was the leaking, in July, of her WhatsApp messages to a newspaper. “The ego has landed,” she said of Angus Robertson. She went on to criticise the Queen’s jubilee as “royalist b*****ks “, and to ask: “Why didn’t we act?” of her party’s response to Patrick Grady, the SNP MP found to have sexually harassed a teenage staff member. Here, it seemed, was a woman who, though no longer raging against the machine, hadn’t yet been subsumed by it.  

Whitham’s sense of herself as an outsider is the product of a childhood spent in exile. For her first six years, she was at the heart of a large Kilmarnock family. Her father, Hugh, and mother, Irene, met while still at school and married at 18/19 with Whitham on the way. When she was two, her seven-month-old sister, Mary, died of cot death; her brother Graham was born two years after that.

Hugh had just finished an apprenticeship with Massey Ferguson when the company announced the closure of its Kilmarnock plant in 1980. He and his best friend heard Canada was looking for metallurgists and, within six months, both families had moved to Toronto. Whitham was so upset she hardly spoke to her parents. “I was very close to my family,” she says. “Both sets of grandparents lived on the same street. On my way to school, I would stop off round the back of my papa’s house. He would have come off night shift and have a carton of Ribena for me. In Canada, we were this tiny unit.”

Nor did emigrating immediately improve their fortunes. The Toronto company Hugh had gone to work for also closed down, leaving the family reliant on Salvation Army food banks. One of Whitham’s worst memories is of Christmas when she was eight. “My mum had made rice pudding. That was our Christmas dinner,” she says, “but she’d put raisins in and my brother detested raisins. I remember Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the background and my brother crying. And catching sight of my mother’s face and saying: ‘Please, just eat it’.”

The Herald: Elena Whitham speaks to The Herald's Dani Garavelli. Photo Duncan McGlynn.Elena Whitham speaks to The Herald's Dani Garavelli. Photo Duncan McGlynn. (Image: Newsquest)

Those days also widened her horizons. “My mum worked night shifts in Tim Horton’s Donut shop and met a motley crew of people,” she says. “We ended up with a biker as a lodger as we tried to make ends meet.”

By the time Whitham was 10, her father had found another job. The family moved to Montreal and enjoyed a quintessential North American upbringing: “BMX bikes, swimming all summer, skating all winter”. Her parents grew older, her brother Kevin was born, everything calmed down. “But those days stayed with me,” she says. “They influence everything I do.”

In her teens, Whitham hung out with squatters. She studied journalism, interviewing bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Megadeth for the student newspaper, and had just been offered a PR job with a record label when her whole family moved back home. There, she abandoned journalism to work on the frontline with young people, then homeless people, then Women’s Aid.

We ended up with a biker as a lodger as we tried to make ends meet.

Nothing she had seen in Canada prepared her for the scale of the drug problem in East and North Ayrshire, where she mostly worked. Teenagers were injecting temazepam alongside heroin. The situation worsened when GPs stopped prescribing valium and street benzodiazepines took off. “It all came out of the depths of poverty,” she says. “It was rooted in complex needs that were not being addressed.”

Whitham did what she could. Later, while working for Women’s Aid, she noticed many victims of domestic violence were separated from their children because of substance abuse. The organisation secured funding to employ an addictions worker. “We saw women being reunited, women being able to keep their children,” she says.

There were other victories, but also defeats. One day at a car boot sale in Ayr, she heard a man shout: “Elena, come and see what I’ve done.” “It was someone I had supported; he had set up a carpet stall.” But at least 11 others died. One - a fellow punk - was stabbed to death over a £10 heroin deal. “I heard it on the news and cried my eyes out.”

Ready for a place at the decision-making table, Whitham was elected to East Ayrshire Council in 2015. By the time she was deputy leader, her cousin was struggling. Though a stint in rehab had helped, there was a dearth of services to support his recovery when he came home, and users were having to wait up to six months for a methadone prescription.

“I was horrified to realise nothing had changed in terms of the availability and joined-upness of services,” Whitham says. Her cousin is now in sustained recovery, but there were moments they thought they would lose him.

Whitham says she started speaking to the local Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs) and third sector organisations “because they weren’t happy with what was happening and neither were we”. This was, of course, the period when her own party was cutting millions from the ADPs. Later, as drug deaths soared, Nicola Sturgeon would admit the SNP had “taken [its] eye off the ball”.

But Whitham claims once “National Mission” money started filtering through, there was a palpable change. By the time the East Ayrshire Recovery Hub opened in Kilmarnock in August 2022, Whitham had been MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley for more than a year. “There is now same-day prescription of methadone or buprenorphine, and pathways in and out of recovery. It’s like night and day,” she says.

Since Whitham was appointed drugs and alcohol minister in March, much of the public attention has been focused on Glasgow’s DCR pilot. She says there was one collective sigh of relief when the Lord Advocate gave it the go-ahead and another when the Home Office agreed not to block it. But she shares the concerns of some activists about the narrow parameters in which it is being forced to operate as a result of the UK government’s refusal to change the Misuse of Drugs Act or devolve drug powers to Scotland. “The pilot is going to save lives, but it will be high spec and medicalised,” she says. She would prefer to try out a range of models. “Canada has some that are very medical and attached to other services and some that are grassroots-led because that’s what works in a particular location.”

Another concern - ironically - is that frustrated activists might open ad hoc DCRs. Whitham believes Peter Krykant’s unsanctioned van moved the debate forward. But the Tories have made it clear their decision not to intervene in the pilot does not signal their support for DCRs generally. “I don’t know if that level of goodwill would continue [in the face of unapproved sites],” Whitham says.

Beyond the DCRs, she wants to see drug-checking services (which require Home Office licences) up and running, before the synthetics, now ravaging the US, hit our shores. With early figures suggesting the Scottish death toll will rise again this year, it is doubly important to understand new developments. “Bromazolam, which is stronger than etizolam, was implicated in many deaths last year,” she says. “If you combine it with what you think is heroin, but it’s actually a nitazene, it’s catastrophic. Drug checking services will not only let people know what they are taking, they will help us build up a picture of what we are dealing with rather than finding out retrospectively from toxicology reports.” 

The Scottish government is also committed to the roll-out of Glasgow’s Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) programme to other cities. These measures are expensive - the DCR alone will cost £2.3m - and they are all aimed at harm reduction. They’re a provocation to those who insist too much money is being spent on saving lives and not enough on improving them.

Whitham has witnessed enough suffering to understand quality of life can be as important as the fact of it. Her mother died of lung cancer at 58. “We only had five weeks from diagnosis,” she says. “She stopped eating and drinking as her only means of control, hence why I support assisted dying.”

She enthuses about projects such as the Aberlour Mother and Child Recovery Home in Dundee. The Scottish government aims to have increased the number of residential rehab beds in Scotland to 650 by the end of this parliament. But Whitham points out recovery is a complicated process, involving periods of stabilisation and detox and a sense of purpose to fill the void previously filled by substances.

“Very few of those injecting huge amounts in unsafe conditions are going to be able to access residential rehab that same day,” she says. “I hope local areas will work collectively, so that any given region will have x number of stabilisation or detox spaces, and a pathway into longer-term residential rehab for those who want it.”

Whitham is in her second marriage. Her ex husband - and father of her 24-year-old son, Lucas - was a tattoo artist, and they owned a tattoo studio. She met her second husband, Les, 18 years ago on They have a Jack Russell called Mojo and enjoy trips to the seaside.

With time running out, I ask her about Douglas Ross’s Right to Recovery Bill which would enshrine in law the right of those struggling with addiction to access their preferred method of treatment. “I understand the desire to create the Bill, but you need the services to access in the first place,” she says. “I am going to get on and make sure the services are there.”

It’s a politician’s answer, but then Whitham is a politician. Whether or not she is still a disruptor remains to be seen.