South Scotland MSP Emma Harper has welcomed the Scottish Government’s updated, innovative and person-centred approach to tackling problem drug use in Scotland but the MSP stated that more powers in Holyrood are needed to fully deal with the problem across her South Scotland region.

Ms Harper, who was speaking in a debate on drug-related deaths, said the drug-related death figures published last December were ‘unacceptable’.

At the debate, Ms Harper welcomed the publication of the Medication-Assisted Treatment Standards announced by new Minister for Drug Policy, Angela Constance, and agreed that it was crucial to address inequality, listen to lived experience and work in partnership with multiagency approach which includes housing, police and families.

However, she said that 50-year-old UK law on drugs policy needed to be reformed and whilst a collective, four-nations approach could recommend and achieve law reform, continuing with a criminal justice approach instead of a public health approach, was wrong according to evidence. Ms Harper criticised the UK Government’s status quo on current drugs law which they say ‘is fit for purpose’ and for consistently disallowing Holyrood more powers to help the situation in Scotland.

Ms Harper also mentioned drug and alcohol services in Dumfries & Galloway which have been supported during the Covid-19 pandemic, where assertive outreach is under way. The South Scotland MSP said investment of a further £20 million over two years – through the Programme for Government 2021-22, to tackle illicit drugs was also welcomed.

Ms Harper commented;

“I welcome the work undertaken by the Scottish Government, which has committed £250 million of additional funding for urgent action to deal with addiction issues and the harm caused by addiction with a new national mission announced by the First Minister, which is supported by an additional £50 million per year.

“I am keen to continue supporting efforts to enhance ways of working and plan to continue to be part of the cross-party group on drug and alcohol misuse and I would welcome others who might wish to join that cross-party group.

“More people are purchasing illicit street benzodiazepines using the internet, through Facebook advertisements and so on. My understanding is that street benzos are being used when people cannot access their heroin or cocaine dealers and these can be much more potent in their strength, especially when consumed with alcohol which can lead to the devastating consequences and deaths that we are seeing.

“Any measures taken must tackle stigma and discrimination, which are a huge issue, especially in rural areas, and I ask the Minister for a commitment that she ensures that rural parts of Scotland are included in plans going forward.

“I look forward to seeing progress across the whole of Scotland, including in my South Scotland region. We need to achieve better outcomes and support services and encourage compassionate communities”.

• As Deputy Convener of the Health and Sport Committee, Ms Harper participated in the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Scottish drug-related deaths in 2019. The inquiry heard directly from drug and alcohol support agencies, health services, academics, those with lived experience and families who had been affected by problem drug use. All the witnesses agreed that urgent reform is needed to solve the issue of drug deaths in Scotland.

• The inquiry also heard from experts from Portugal, Germany and Canada, who examined the international evidence from countries that are taking a more progressive public health approach, not a punitive criminal justice approach, to tackling problem drug use. Levels of deaths associated with drug misuse and eviction in those countries had reduced significantly, including by as much as 40 per cent in Canada. One recommendation from the Scottish Affairs Committee was that the UK Government must urgently introduce legislation to allow the Scottish Parliament to take its own approach to this hugely significant issue.