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Issue 55

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Issue 55, April 2001

Scotland's March Against Drugs

    How to respond?
    'Law enforcement' approach has failed
    A real debate needed

April's 'March Against Drugs', organised by Scotland's biggest selling tabloid newspaper, The Daily Record, generated controversy amongst Scottish socialists about how best to take up the country's hard drugs problem. SINEAD DALY reports.

THE DAILY RECORD's initiative was supported by the millionaire, Brian Souter, owner of the Stagecoach company, by Tony Blair, and other leaders of the establishment parties. It also attracted the backing of Scottish football teams and celebrities.

There were over 300 drug-related deaths in Scotland last year. A majority of those were the result of heroin overdose or toxic poisoning. The scale of the hard drugs problem is illustrated by the fact that there are 40,000 intravenous drug users in Scotland. Between them they spend over £540 million on their habit. The Daily Record attempted to cash in on this by turning the march into a commemoration for those who have died from heroin abuse in Scotland, with Souter providing buses across the length and breath of the country.

The Daily Record's campaign to 'name and shame' drug dealers is a cynical attempt to increase sales. With a general election looming it is also an opportunity to try and claw back support for the government in areas that feel most betrayed by New Labour policies. The campaign is simple: the names and photos of alleged drug dealers are published in the paper and the information passed on to the police. Consequently, many people have been evicted with no evidence except that their name appeared in print.


These tactics are not new. The establishment does not seriously attempt to tackle the devastation that heroin and drug abuse inflicts on working-class communities. Essentially, the Daily Record is whipping up hysteria on the issue and demonising young people who take drugs. This suits the government because it diverts attention from the real causes of drug abuse, poverty. However, it is fair to say that the Record's campaign has been getting an echo from working-class people, primarily because it's an avenue to vent their frustration on the issue.

top     How to respond?

IN RESPONSE TO the March Against Drugs, a proposal was circulated in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to hold a counter-demonstration on the same day, around the slogan 'Fight Heroin, Legalise Cannabis'. This proposal did not receive widespread support within the SSP, and the West of Scotland regional committee actually voted against the plan. Despite this, the following day in Glasgow city council, Tommy Sheridan (a Glasgow councillor and SSP Member of the Scottish Parliament) applied for permission for a counter-demonstration - before it was even discussed on the SSP's national executive.

The Daily Record went on the rampage, focusing on the slogan to legalise cannabis. A series of vicious articles and editorials denounced Tommy and the SSP as being pro-drugs and disrespectful of those marching who have lost family members to heroin abuse. It was inevitable that the Record would try to rubbish the SSP, given the approaching general election. However, the mistaken approach of some of the SSP leadership has given the establishment a stick to beat the SSP with. The CWI in Scotland opposed the proposal for a counter-demo and the SSP executive later agreed to cancel plans for a counter-march and instead organise a public meeting for after the Record march ends.


Given the cynical intentions behind the Daily Record's demonstration and campaign, what was the problem with organising a counter-demonstration?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the majority of the people participating in the demonstration have genuine concern and anger about the problem of drugs in their communities. Hard drug abuse, particularly of heroin, has devastated many working-class areas in Scotland. A counter-demo would be seen - and rightly so - to be confrontational and completely insensitive to the real fears that people have about heroin abuse. Surely these are people that we need to engage in discussions on the best way of tackling the issue of drug abuse in society, rather than alienating them. The consequences of organising a counter-demo would be to push working-class people into the arms of the Daily Record and its reactionary ideas.

Secondly, the fact that the main slogan of the counter-demo - indeed, one of the main campaigns of the SSP - is the legalisation of cannabis, complicates our ability to intervene effectively. Legalising cannabis is just not a key issue for areas affected by hard drug abuse. It is not cannabis that is responsible for devastating many of these communities. The slogan 'Fight Heroin, Legalise Cannabis', also implies that the legalisation of cannabis will alleviate the problem of heroin abuse in society. This is just not the case. In fact, most cannabis users do not go on to use harder drugs.

This is not to say that cannabis, and its legalisation or decriminalisation, should not be taken up in the party's programme. It should. It is important to recognise that whole sections of the population are criminalised for the possession of cannabis. We should also oppose the methods of the police who use the current laws as an excuse to harass young people. Breaking the black market link between cannabis and heroin could play some role, but only as part of an overall policy that confronts wider issues, including the social conditions facing working-class communities. It is one thing to have cannabis legalisation as part of your programme on drugs, it is quite another to have it as your main campaigning slogan!


top     'Law enforcement' approach has failed

THIS FIASCO OPENS up questions about how socialists should take up the issue of heroin and drug abuse. What are the key questions involved?

One of the main difficulties for socialists in dealing with the issue of heroin abuse is that there is no solution under capitalism. All legal and illegal drugs, especially taken in excess, have some harmful effects. However, all human societies have used drugs in some form or other. Nonetheless, modern capitalism has led to drug addiction and dependency on an unprecedented scale. It is only by getting rid of capitalism that we could really begin to tackle the problems of drug addiction. As long as the multi-national companies (both legal and illegal) exist, they will make profits from selling drugs.

Drug dependency and addiction affects all classes in society but heroin addiction, in particular, is primarily devastating working-class communities. The main contributory factor for substance abuse is the poverty, alienation and abusive nature of capitalism. Until this is eradicated there always will be people trying to escape the misery that capitalism causes. It is no accident that the communities worst affected by legal and illegal drugs are the most deprived working-class areas plagued by poverty, unemployment, a lack of facilities, overcrowded schools, crime, etc.

However, we do have a responsibility to fight for more immediate measures that can alleviate the problems in working-class communities. The approach of successive governments has been to deal with illicit drug taking as a law enforcement issue. This has failed miserably. Drug abuse will remain a fact of life until we successfully change society into one where the economy can be planned and run in the interests of people not profit, where young people can enjoy a future free from poverty, with access to free education, good jobs and wages, and decent, affordable accommodation. Therefore, we have to link the campaign for socialist change to a fight for more harm-reduction measures. The only way of achieving this is to tackle drug abuse as a health issue.


One of the problems with the government approach of demonising addicts is that it pushes drug abuse underground. We do not really know the full scale of the problem. The National Health Service (NHS) could provide addicts with uncut heroin, clean needles and access to counseling. If or when addicts were ready to come off heroin, they would be in an environment with access to the necessary support structures. The most destructive consequences of drug abuse in local communities could be cut across. Addicts would not have to go through dealers to get their drugs. They would not need to steal in order to pay the dealer. It would dramatically reduce the number of addicts contracting diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Using clean heroin dispensed in a safe and controlled environment, reduces the risks of overdosing. People already HIV-positive would have access to the appropriate medication. This would mean it could be possible for addicts to re-establish a 'normal' life for themselves again.

In Switzerland, over 1,000 addicts are prescribed heroin on a daily basis. No one has died of an overdose since the scheme was introduced and crime rates have fallen dramatically. In fact, it has been seen as such a success that a majority voted to continue the scheme in a referendum in 1997.

Harm-reduction policies in Scotland have also been effective in relation to addictive legal drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol. There have been a whole series of measures like smoke-free zones, designated drives and so on, that have reduced the harm associated with drug taking.


This approach may raise fears in some people, given the current state of the NHS. Therefore, central to these demands is increased funding for the NHS. It would also be necessary to ensure that the cost of dispensing drugs to addicts would be spread as evenly as possible across the country and within local boroughs. This would avoid the over-concentration of addicts in particular areas, a source of great concern for people.

Even this approach, in and of itself, this would not end the reality of pushers on the streets, although it would seriously reduce their market. But there will always be other young people to prey on. And if people are still living in abject poverty or are engaged in a constant struggle for survival, there will always be a market for certain drugs.

This approach, however, is in complete contrast to that of the Daily Record, which basically 'names and shames' alleged drug pushers on the basis of telephone conversations. There is no attempt to involve local communities and many of those named have never dealt in heroin.

top     A real debate needed

THE ISSUE OF drugs is an extremely emotive and complicated issue. It is imperative that the concerns of working-class people are taken into account when putting forward demands and intervening into movements. It is in areas that have seen massive job losses, and local community and leisure centres shut down, which have seen a developing drugs crisis and our role is to also broaden the debate, to take into account social and economic questions which are conveniently left untouched by the political establishment. The mistakes of the majority of the SSP leadership towards the Daily Record demo are an important lesson.


The prevalence of drug abuse in society is inextricably linked to the inability of capitalist society to offer any sort of hope for a decent future for people. Under New Labour we have seen student grants scrapped, college tuition fees introduced, a derisory minimum wage, the selling-off of public utilities, and a crisis within the NHS. The gap between the rich and poor is widening and, with the increasing alienation of sections of the working class, it is likely that we will see a worsening of the drugs crisis.

A real debate about how to tackle drug abuse is needed, but a real solution can only be achieved when we have control over the economic and social resources needed to tackle the problems associated with poverty and provide people with real hope for their future.

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