Tuesday, March 08, 2011

No, Scottish Liberal Democrats aren't for handing out heroin like sweeties - the truth behind the lurid headlines


That was my mantra before sitting an exam. Read the Flippin' Question*. Making sure you understand what you're being asked is fundamental. Otherwise, you can go off on one, write pages and then realise that you are not really giving the examiner what they want. Take it from one who knows.

RTFQ has a twin, RTFM, applicable to journalists in particular. It stands for Read the Flippin' Motion* before you write a headline which completely misrepresents what the Scottish Liberal Democrat (or any other but I only really care about ours) Conference has voted for.

"Lib Dems back move to give addicts NHS heroin" screamed the Sunday Herald. The Express was even worse. "Lib Dems want heroin given out free on the NHS" Really? To everybody? In schools? At sweetie counters? Whether they like it or not? Whatever, you might be forgiven for thinking, if you'd read those headlines, that you could just go along to your local pharmacy and pick up some controlled drugs along with your Rennies and your support stockings.

That's not the case, though. Let me tell you exactly what the motion passed on Saturday says:
"Conference further calls for increased investment in schemes like the Persistent Offenders Project and for specialised diamorphine maintenance clinics to be made available as an extra option facilitating intervention in the lives of the most vulnerable and most disruptive heroin users."
So, not really very many people at all, and only as an extra tool as a last resort.

This part was an amendment Glasgow South local party had tabled to a motion from the awesome Liberal Youth Scotland, who were calling for greater use of community service and drug treatment orders as opposed to fines for drug possession. This is the whole of their motion:

Conference notes that in 2008-09, across Scotland, 2296 people received a fine for
possession of drugs, compared to 78 who received a Community Service Order
(CSO) and 62 who received a Drug Treatment and Testing Order (DTTO).
Conference also notes that the Central, Fife, Northern and Grampian police force
areas only handed down one DTTO each in this year for drug possession
Conference believes that CSOs and DTTOs are far more effective in dealing with the
root causes of drug offences.
Conference also believes that fines carry a significant risk that the offender may turn
to further crime in order to pay the fine.
Conference therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ask the new Scottish
Sentencing Council to review sentencing in drug possession cases, with a view to
ensuring the maximum effective use of DTTOs and CSOs.
Conference also calls on any such review to take account of the risk of further crime
from handing out fines for drug possession.

Callum Leslie proposed the motion on behalf of Liberal Youth Scotland and explained why he thought it and the amendment were so important in tackling crime. I'm going to reproduce his speech in full (with his permission) so that you can see the whole of his argument.

Conference, Scotland has a drug problem. There's no point beating about the bush. We have a problem, and what we are doing at the moment isn't working. A quarter of adults admit taking one or more illicit drug in their lifetime, and the number of people taking drugs is not falling, despite our best efforts.
 We need to look again at the way we do things. We need to think different. It's no longer good enough to make strong statements, and be seen as being “tough on crime”, we need to put in place the practical solutions that can start to really address this problem. The case for community service almost does not need to be made. It is a long held Liberal Democrat belief that meaningful community payback is in many cases the most effective treatment. Why is it then that just 78 people received a Community Service Order for drug possession in 2008/09?
 Conference it seems utterly outrageous to me that 2296 fines were handed down for drug possession in the period. The Scottish Government's own report into evidence based drug sentencing recommended that we needed to “Improve our understanding of the benefits and costs of long-term prescribing and how to generate recovery communities within maintenance treatment services,” and this huge amount of fines does nothing to achieve this aim.
 The impact of a fine is, in general, minimal, and will not have any effect on re-offending. That is in fact almost a best case scenario. At worst, these fines will lead to further acquisitive crime from the offender to pay them, and potentially lead minor offenders only picked up for drug possession at first to a life of much more serious crime. Now, I know what some might say – fines don't cost anything, CSOs and DTTOs cost too much. I would say this, fines may not cost anything for the Government to collect on the face of it, but by not addressing the real problem and using those methods which reform and rehabilitate the offender, we are leaving ourselves open to having to spend much more money later on sending these people to prison – these methods do save money in the long run. It could be said that DTTOs are too expensive and their effectiveness has been called into question, however I believe that the amendment to this motion will strengthen DTTOs and give  sheriffs greater flexibility to hand down treatment programmes which will be most likely to reduce drug use and offending.
 Having said all of this, while I may firmly believe that alternatives to fines and prison are the most effective to deal with offenders, that is not what the motion is calling for. All the motion calls for is for the new sentencing board to look at these figures, and investigate whether or not we have the balance right.
 Conference this is not a debate about legalisation, or decriminalisation. I'm not opening that can or worms – we've all been there before and is a debate for another day. Liberal Youth Scotland simply have a deep concern over the way in which we are dealing with this relatively low level of drug crime, and are not addressing the real problems behind them. I would also like to speak briefly to the amendment, which Liberal Youth Scotland is happy to support. The amendment in the name of Glasgow South local party may sound controversial, but actually I believe it is anything but – it would reduce drug use in those with the most serious addictions, save the public purse money through alternative treatments instead of prison, and will reduce acquisitive crime associated with chaotic drug use. Diamorphine maintenance treatment would of course have to be tightly controlled, and would not be used lightly. This treatment would only be used for those addicts who have not responded to other treatments such as methadone treatment – many of those who are prescribed methadone treatment do not respond to it, and the methadone does not stop them going out and acquiring street heroin – and committing further acquisitive crime to do it. Ewan will speak to this in a moment but diamorphine treatment has by far the strongest evidence base, and can no longer be dismissed out of hand.Conference, we have a big opportunity here. Evidence-based drug policy is the way forward in how we deal with Scotland's relationship with drugs, and the new Scottish sentencing board must look at all of the available options, not just those available to sheriffs at the moment. I am confident that not only will increased use of alternative punishments, and particularly diamorphine treatment, reduce drug use in Scotland, it will save money, save us from the acquisitive crime associated with drug use, and save lives. Conference, I urge you to support the motion and the amendment. Thank you.
I am really pleased that Alex Cole-Hamilton, despite being the candidate for the target seat of Edinburgh Central, spoke out on a controversial subject. He said:
 “There is a great cost to society, and the public purse, if offenders are just abandoned to a cycle of crime and prison.
“DTTOs and CSOs are measures that would save public money by keeping drug abusers out of jail.
“Drug offenders should not be treated the same as murderers. We should work to treat the problem of drug abuse, not lock addicts away and condemn them to a life of crime.
“This is a problem that affects drug users, families and the wider community. It needs a holistic solution.” 
Most moving of all was the contribution made by 14 year old Alexandra White, who told very movingly and with understanding and clarity of how she'd lost a friend whose mother was a drug user and was in and out of prison. She did it all without notes, so I can't copy it. However, if you look here, at around 15 minutes in, you can see her and I'm sure you'll agree that she deserved the prize she received for best speech of the conference.

I hope I've managed to show you that the truth behind the lurid headlines is something much more sensible and evidence based.

* some words may have been changed to make this suitable for a family audience, and to spare me having to pay fines for swearing to my daughter

1 comment:

Ewan Hoyle said...

Very true Caron. I've written a letter to the Sunday Express to clear up the position and refute the arguments of the opposition parties.

Here's my speech for the amendment that has been misconstrued:



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