WHEN I was a Glasgow MSP, I did a lot of work on drugs. I visited a range of rehab centres. I met and spoke with a broad array of specialists, activists, experts and users. I went to recovery cafes and talked with the people who ran them, folk who themselves were often in recovery from the hell of addiction. And I went to the remarkable Drugs Crisis Centre just over the river from the city centre.

It was harrowing. I sat in a room of addicts and listened to their stories, whilst a number of their carers kept a watchful eye. The man I sat next to had one leg. The other had been amputated because he’d used so many dirty needles to shoot heroin into his groin that he’d developed gangrene and his entire leg had been removed. He was still using.

We talked about why. It was the same story I’d heard in a dozen rehab and recovery centres. The drugs aren’t the disease. They’re not even the symptom. The addiction is the symptom. The disease is the pain that the drugs are being used to seek escape from.

This man, next to whom I was sitting, was in unbelievable pain. He was inflicting it on himself, using drugs that were killing him and needles that were costing him his limbs. But all that pain was worth it, he told me, because it was so much easier to bear than whatever it was that had happened in his past, from which he was desperately seeking escape.

He was clear-eyed and softly spoken. He spoke to me in a silent room, everyone hushed out of respect for his story. We talked about what to do. He said, to unanimous agreement around the room: “Whatever you do, don’t make it easier for us to get hold of this stuff”.

He so desperately wanted to be free. But he knew that to rid himself of the scourge of heroin he would have to confront and to stop trying to escape from whatever had so damaged and hurt him in the first place. And he knew, too – everyone in the room knew – that that kind of long, slow, arduous and expensive rehab was simply not going to be made available to him.

All the system would give him was a script for an opioid replacement, a bed for a fortnight, and an all-too-swift return to the streets.

Whatever you do, don’t make it easier to get hold of this stuff. I’ll never forget those words, I’ll never forget the anguish in that man’s eyes as he implored me to listen, and I’ll never forget the unanimous assent of every other user in that room that day, who had come to share their stories with me.

The solution to Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis is not to make drugs more freely available. The solution is to understand that the drugs aren’t the root problem. The problem is what drives people to use them in the first place. Those problems are driven deep. There is only one way of tackling them – a full, comprehensive rehab programme, with all the therapy and support that entails.

It’s not only inhumane that we have so few rehab beds in Scotland. It’s madness. Yes it’s expensive. But it’s nothing like as expensive as condemning people to a life of uncured addiction, with all the costs to the healthcare system – to say nothing of the criminal justice system – that entails.

After years of stasis, our politics is starting to look as if it might finally grow up about drugs. The joint visit this week of Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross to a recovery centre in Glasgow is hugely to be welcomed. Bravo to both of them for trying to work together for a change, rather than just taking chunks out of each other across the Holyrood chamber.

The Scottish Tories are right to have championed their Right to Recovery Bill as a key plank of the drugs strategy Scotland needs. I’m much less convinced that their recent abandonment of the Conservatives’ long-standing opposition to safe consumption facilities will achieve anything, but perhaps Douglas Ross has an answer to the users in crisis who find heroin all too easy to come by, and who want a system that is designed to heal them as human beings, not one which simply enables and facilitates their addiction.

The bleak truth, however, is that even if my old party is able to persuade Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament as a whole of the wisdom of their Right to Recovery Bill, such legislation will tackle only the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. For the problem itself is what drives people towards addiction in the first place. Poverty. Family breakdown. Debt. A lack of attainment at school. A lack of hope and aspiration in the community. No sense of direction. No sense of home or belonging or purpose. Bleak employment prospects. Joblessness.

It is never as simple as saying that poverty causes addiction. As often as not, it’s actually the other way around – addiction worsens poverty. There is clearly a close, mutually destructive relationship between the two. And therein lies so much of the failure of Scotland’s drugs policies. They are policies in a silo, disconnected from the wider social ills of which our drugs crisis is but one part.

The joint initiative of the First Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this week was tremendous. It has the potential to be a genuine breakthrough. But it will achieve nothing unless they and their parties can agree to dig a whole lot deeper into the malaise of which drugs deaths are but the tip.

One has to start somewhere, and I can understand the politics that led Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Ross to start with drugs. But let that be the beginning of their joint commitment to heal Scotland, and not the end of the story.

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