In Scotland it often seems like if the “don’t do drugs” messaging fails, you’re on your own. Drug use is perceived as a moral failing, and those experiencing addiction are viewed negatively – most acutely if that person is working class, or from a minoritised background.

Hearing that the Scottish Government wants to decriminalise drug use, especially when exacerbated by sensationalist headlines like "bonkers SNP plan to legalise drugs will break Scotland", might sound strange, but as with any public health policy, this issue should be approached from a non-partisan, evidence-driven perspective, not used to point-score or fearmonger.

I wanted to speak to people actually working in addiction support, who know how best to advocate for people experiencing addiction, and help address the issues they face. Crew are a Scottish harm-reduction and counselling charity, and when I asked them about decriminalisation they said, “Evidence from many other countries where decriminalisation policies have been implemented have shown this to be an effective tool in reducing drug related harm.

“One of the main benefits of decriminalisation of drugs is the shift to approaching drug use and particularly problematic drug use and dependency as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Effectively decriminalising drugs is much more about decriminalising people and ensuring that people have easier access to supportive health and wellbeing services.”

As part of my research for this column, I read articles about drug addiction in Scotland, paying particular attention to the opinions in their comment sections and while I’d like to say I was surprised, seeing hundreds of responses like, “Give them extra strong doses so it kills them quicker. Problem solved” just confirmed what I already knew: people who use drugs are constantly dehumanised, judged and treated as a burden, a joke, or vermin.

Headlines talking about how much free stuff people are getting to help them combat their drug addiction is specifically and deliberately designed to stoke the flames of stigma, and that kind of sneering superiority demonstrates the true shame in conversations surrounding addiction. You'd be struggling to find any other illness so misunderstood, and thankfully with the way the NHS is set up, people don’t get to choose which suffering it helps alleviate based on their personal moral code.

Shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation has the potential to more effectively address addiction, as the current system is clearly failing those in need of support. As part of lived experience interviews put forward in a report from the Scottish Government, many people reported an increase in substance use while in prison, while a lack of access to support and delays for things like prescriptions made coming off drugs extremely difficult, if not impossible.

One interviewee said: “[Substance use] became part of the prison culture … everything's like an evil version of Groundhog Day … and the atmosphere can be quite poisonous and nasty and evil. So, if you can't escape that physically, you're going to try to escape it mentally, aren't you?”

Sadly, leaving prison without the support necessary to address addiction can often prove fatal, as a study done on people experiencing addiction in the UK immediately after leaving prison showed men are 29 times more likely than the rest of the population to die in the first seven days after leaving prison, most likely due to an overdose.

Harm reduction takes many forms, and as Crew says, “is most effective when it is person-centred, informed and led by people with both lived and living experience, and is built with compassion”. Harm reduction often includes the proliferation of naloxone to help treat opioid overdose, offering clean and sanitary injection resources and wound care products to reduce infection and blood-borne illnesses such as HIV or Hepatitis, and the provision of information and kits related to substance testing to help mitigate lacing and contamination. The goal of effective harm reduction is not to moralise, or to make people who take drugs feel ashamed of themselves, but to reduce and eradicate harm whenever possible.

Shame is a powerful influence, and can preclude people from accessing help and support when it is most acutely needed. Crew reported that, as part of a survey they conducted, “70% of the respondents indicated that they would avoid being honest with a health professional about their drug use as they would be worried about the possible legal consequences, stigma that they might experience or that they might be treated differently.”

People can and do recover from addiction, they can lead happy, safe, and healthy lives, but this is much more likely to happen when we invest in help and resources which meet them where they are and supports them in ways which are non-judgemental and based not in opinions and stigma, but in compassion and science.

I spoke to the family of MJ about his experiences of addiction and recovery. It is their hope that his story might inspire other people to access help if they need it.

“My brother struggled with his mental health all his life, and drug use formed a part of that. He often felt judged by medical professionals and felt the acute stigma around heroin addiction. He wanted to stop using heroin more than anything, but knew recovery was not a short process and that it would take a lot of help, love, support and patience from others to achieve it.

“He would go to the chemist every day to take his suboxone and though he found the process incredibly challenging, he kept at it. My brother wanted to be clean for his weans, through the right support he was able to do this, and to stay clean. When his weans were born he was doting, patient, gentle and attentive. He was the kind of dad every child deserves, nothing phased him and the weans never laughed as much as when they were with their daddy. He was a wonderful father, brother, partner and son, full of humour and resilience, and we will always miss him.”

As long as there are drugs on this planet to use, people will use them, and they will experience addiction. To ignore that problem or try to cover it by simply arresting those found in possession of drugs may make the issue more palatable for society, but it perpetuates a cycle of shame and suffering.

Addiction, while a real and recognisable problem in its own right, is all too often just one symptom in the complex web of battles someone might be facing. Mental illness, chronic illness, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, PTSD, bereavement, there are a myriad of reasons why someone might start or continue to use drugs.

Investing ways to solve, mitigate and alleviate these issues plays an essential role in helping to lower rates of addiction. The war on drugs should not be a war on people struggling with addiction, but a war on the kind of stigma, suffering and systemic inequality that can perpetuate and exacerbate drug use and dependency. Addiction is not a moral failure, and people who use drugs are not bad people in need of punishment or shame.