What Sturgeon’s resignation means for the drugs crisis in Scotland

Sudden news of the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing that she is due to stand down as Leader within months – after eight years – has sent shockwaves through Holyrood and beyond. During a time of political turmoil, her iron-clad grip on the Scottish Parliament is coming to an end.

Her legacy will be remembered for her attempts to make Scotland independent, strong leadership through the Covid pandemic, her policies for mothers and newborn babies, the gender recognition bill, and the ongoing drugs crisis in Holyrood.

Throughout her premiership, drug deaths have risen and are at a rate that is three-times higher than the rest of the United Kingdom but supporters of the SNP will claim – with some fair rationale – that they have attempted to take measures which go further than the Conservatives in Westminster, and Labour in the Senedd.

The SNP have called for greater devolved powers, with drug policy reserved to Westminster. They claim that Westminster has blocked progressive proposals at every turn, whilst opponents claim that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP could and should have done more to prevent these tragedies.

Speaking to politics.co.uk, Labour MSP Paul Sweeney – architect of the Drug Death Prevention Bill which is aimed at reducing harm, suffering and deaths and is due to publish public consultation results soon – said Sturgeon’s government “has refused to test the boundaries of devolution by introducing life saving measures like Overdose Prevention Centres (OPC).”

An OPC – facilities where people who inject drugs can do so under medical supervision – looks to be close with or without sign-off from the UK Government. There are around 200 of these facilities globally, across 16 countries including the US, Canada, Germany and Portugal.

In Scotland, one has already existed – albeit ‘unsanctioned’ – which was operated by leading drug policy reform campaigner Peter Krykant. The Lord Advocate has been reviewing the legal details to determine if Scotland can go ahead with implementation but there is great hope for a positive outcome soon.

Unsurprisingly from an opposition point of view, Sweeney accused the First Minister of failing to deliver on her promises.

He said “while Nicola Sturgeon talked a good game when it comes to drug policy and reducing the number of preventable drug related deaths in Scotland, her actions rarely matched her rhetoric. I don’t doubt her sincerity, her compassion or her desire to make a difference, but the reality is during time as First Minister the number of drug related deaths has more than doubled. Whoever takes over from her must translate the warm words into tangible actions and truly make reform of drug policy a priority.”

During a recent campaigning visit from the charity Cranstoun – whom I work for – 28 Members of Scottish Parliament from all parties (except the Conservatives) pledged to back an additional OPC in Dundee.

In addition Councillors, such as Liberal Democrat Euan Davidson, have been advancing plans for an OPC in the capital Edinburgh, with a Bill passing recently.

Davidson is calling for Sturgeon “to put her Government on the right side of history by reversing the in-year cuts to rehab budgets and supporting radical alternatives to the punitive approach we see now by backing proposals like the social-model based overdose prevention centre we are pushing for in Edinburgh.”

Other efforts to reduce the shocking numbers of drug deaths include campaigning for the implementation of Diamorphine Assisted Treatment. Diamorphine is medical-grade heroin, which is given to those with complex needs who are at most at risk of overdose, and have been addicted for a long time.

A research evaluation based on a scheme in Middlesbrough from Teesside University has shown that there are a range of benefits to this approach – including an enormous cost saving for the taxpayer from a reduction in acquisitive crime. An estimate from the local Police and Crime Commissioner at the time, Barry Coppinger, found that crime related to drugs from 20 people was costing each individual £5 a year in council tax costs. This equated to almost £800,000 over two years.

SNP Dundee MSP and Former Health Minister for Scotland Joe FitzPatrick recently asked the Drugs Minister Angela Constance MSP if she would allow for the implementation to address the particularly stark death figures in Scotland.

Her response confirmed that she would make funds available for a pilot scheme, and the decision rests with the Alcohol and Drugs Partnership in Dundee who are looking at feasibility.

FitzPatrick told this outlet “I’m pleased to see the Dundee Alcohol and Drug Partnership agree to undertake a scoping study, backed by Scottish Government funding, to establish the need for diamorphine assisted treatment in the city. It’s not a silver bullet, but evidence from elsewhere, including Glasgow, shows that it has a role to play in supporting those with particularly challenging drug use.”

Campaigners and politicians alike are under no illusions that there is no ‘silver bullet’ and FitzPatrick highlights positive work from the SNP, whilst recognising the need to continue following global evidence on what works.

He added that “we need to leave no stone unturned and that means pursuing and advocating for further measures, such as overdose prevention centres, drug checking facilities, diamorphine assisted treatment and any other policies that the evidence from elsewhere leads us towards.

There is reasonable concern among drug policy reform campaigners that any political uncertainty could reverse these positive developments we have worked so hard for, and which are seemingly on the cusp of implementation.

New leaders, political tendencies or ideologies and a potential cabinet reshuffle all provide scope for reasonable concern.

Councillor Davidson, shares this view, stating “I have never doubted that Nicola Sturgeon wants to tackle the appalling drug deaths crisis that blights our communities, but the sad truth is that her Government has singularly failed on this issue. My concern right now is that she will be replaced with someone with less enlightened views on these issues.”

Angus Robertson is currently the bookies’ favourite to succeed Sturgeon, followed by Kate Forbes, John Swinney and Humza Yousef. At least one of these candidates holds conservative religious values, which could align more with personal responsibility for drug use as opposed to a harm reductionist view.

Whilst sweeping assumptions should be reserved until the new leader has made their pitch and been installed, there is an opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon to mark her legacy with reforms that would positively impact the Scottish people for generations to come – potentially saving hundreds of lives, with 1,330 people dying from drugs in 2021 alone.

Recent Scottish government polling reveals that over 9 in 10 believe it is in the public interest to provide help and support to people with problem drug use, demonstrating the political expediency in enacting change before standing down. Lastly, Sturgeon could compound the power of her leadership to deliver on promises, whilst Westminster bounces from crisis to crisis.


Ant Lehane, is Lead Policy Consultant at Cranston, a Social Justice and Harm Reduction