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Just ask why

Brian Taylor | 10:26 UK time, Thursday, 29 May 2008

Big numbers. In Scotland, 421 deaths caused by drugs in 2006. Between 40,000 and 60,000 children's lives affected by parental addiction. An estimated social cost of £2.5bn.

By contrast, a small number. "Drug users come in units of one."

That particular phrase jumped out at me as I listened to Communities Minister Fergus Ewing explaining his revised strategy on drugs to MSPs.

The new emphasis is upon recovery, rather than containment. This switch was partly prompted by the Tories in negotiations over the Scottish Government's budget.

But Mr Ewing is by no means a reluctant convert. Drugs ruined lives, he said. They were anything but glamorous. The aim should be to encourage abstinence. To get folk off drugs.

There has been, I feel, a degree of misunderstanding about the role of methadone.

The emphasis on recovery does not preclude methadone. But the aim will be to get people off methadone too, not merely to stabilise them with its use.

Which brings us back to that key phrase: "Drug users come in units of one."

To be clear, the minister is in no way disparaging collective, social assistance. To the contrary. He simply means that different, focused help will be required for each individual. What works for one may not work for another.

Politicians have frequently struggled to cope with the issue of drugs. Either they sound glib or they sound apocalyptic. Neither matches the mood in our troubled communities which more resembles taut despair.

To be fair, Mr Ewing and the others who spoke today know that. There was a consensual approach. They know that words which sound sensible in the Holyrood chamber can sound like platitudinous drivel around our towns and cities.

Drugs, crime, prostitution, family breakdown, younger and younger users. The sheer scale can drown out mere words, evoking a sense of hopelessness.

Just say no? Just ask why. Why an individual, not an amorphous "user" but an individual, turns to drugs. What might assist that individual to rebuild a life?
Is the core problem education? Or employability? Or family stress? Or social circumstances? Ask why - and try to help.

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