By Tommy Sheridan
When you have been involved in politics as long as me you become almost immune from the stench of hypocrisy which attaches itself to political debate and mainstream media coverage of those debates. With mixed emotions I read the two page spread and leading opinion piece in yesterday’s Scottish Daily Record newspaper concerning the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee Report which has called for the decriminalisation of illegal drug use and several other progressive measures designed to tackle problem drug use as a health problem not a criminal problem https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201920/cmselect/cmscotaf/44/4410.htm.
On the one hand I am pleased that the sane, evidence based and expert research informed opinions on tackling illegal drug use are at long last being taken seriously. Far too many lives have been blighted and/or lost on the back of a stupid and counterproductive ‘war on drugs’ approach which has always been an insane waste of resources and energy. Too many politicians have shamelessly thumped tables during public meetings and debates and demanded tougher police action and longer sentences for illegal drug users and suppliers while snorting white cocaine powder regularly in private and consuming copious amounts of the most dangerous drug in society, namely alcohol.
Politicians and their newspaper editor friends have long been known for their private cocaine habits and love affair with expensive brandies and other spirits while they lambasted working class users of cannabis and heroin as low lives who require the full force of the law mobilised against them. Working class adherents to hash are no-good layabouts while the middle class offspring are merely curious rebels harmlessly dabbling with mummy and daddy’s generous allowances paying for quality pot.
The nonsense and hypocrisy at the heart of the ‘war on drugs’ policy and philosophy pursued by the likes of the UK and US Governments was and is unsustainable. After serving my six months sentence in Edinburgh’s Saughton prison in early 1992 I became even more acutely convinced about the futility of existing drugs laws than I already was before being incarcerated. Most of the prisoners were decent working class guys from similar housing scheme backgrounds to my own. Those convicted of crimes of dishonesty were often trying to provide for a family through shop lifting or bank robberies. Those convicted of violent crimes almost without fail had one thing in common – alcohol.
I remember one day sitting with a group of six or seven prisoners in one guy’s cell and they were discussing their charge sheets in preparation of appearance at court on other charges. These were decent individuals who I had shared laughs with and played football in the exercise yard with. Yet when I read the charge sheets I was taken aback. They all had convictions for violent assaults and one involved the use of a stolen car to run over a victim several times. ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’ I said to the perpetrator of that heinous crime. ‘I don’t know Tommy, I can hardly remember anything I was absolutely steaming (very drunk) mate’ was the response. All of the other guys then relayed their tales of being so drunk on alcohol that they could hardly recall what they done or why.
Throughout my upbringing in the working class housing scheme of Pollok in the Southside of Glasgow I became acutely aware of the violence inducing qualities of alcohol. Whether in house parties or on street corners alcohol was always at the root of fights, stabbings, slashings and sometimes murders. Alcohol also played a part in turning some of the adult parents I knew from likeable individuals into monsters who mistreated their wives and children. I wanted to be a professional footballer as a kid so my dad always advised me to stay away from alcohol and try and stay fit. I never made it into the professional ranks but that sound advice has informed my life and approach to alcohol. It is not a harmless substance but an addictive and personality changing drug which often spawns violence in particular circumstances.
Yet not only was alcohol legal it was actually promoted widely and effectively through expensive advertising campaigns which made it appear cool and normal to consume. Cannabis on the other hand was demonised and frowned upon by the great and the good in society. Yet in Saughton Prison cannabis was easily accessible with the right contacts and currency. It was consumed by a large section of prisoners. The truth is most prison officers turned a blind eye as the guys having a toke at night in their cells were likely to be relaxed and chilled out. No bother for the night shift.
That experience of mine in Saughton Prison for my part in organising the prevention of a poll tax warrant sale almost thirty years ago can be generalised and extrapolated to illustrate the futility of drugs laws. If cannabis can be supplied in the strict closed conditions of a prison how the hell can you hope to prevent it being available in open society? A war on drugs really means a war on ordinary people and communities. Nowadays with the introduction of mandatory blood tests for the prison population it is heroin and Valium which is more prevalent as cannabis stays in the blood stream for days compared the quick exit of the other drugs. It was a stupid measure in my opinion. Many occasional cannabis users have entered Scottish prisons without serious addictions but exited with dangerous heroin habits. Use of drugs is rife in prisons to help counter the boredom and pain of isolation from families and loved ones.
My position in relation to the futility and counterproductive nature of drug laws has been consistent throughout my adult life. Not so the tabloids like the Daily Record and many politicians.
Here’s what I had to say in the Scottish Parliament about illegal drugs eighteen years ago on March 22nd 2001 during a debate on a Committee Report that confirmed more and more Scots were addicted to and dying from use of illegal drugs, mostly heroin. I am including a lengthy quote for context and purpose:
“The Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee‘s report is very good and the members of the committee who have spoken about it so far have spoken well. However, the report fails to make other recommendations that I believe are vital. I welcome the clear and unequivocal message, central to the report, that drugs and problem drug use are integrally linked to poverty and deprivation. That message must be repeated over and over again as an antidote to the counterproductive and futile language of a war on drugs, which, thankfully, is not used in the report. Recognition that the tub-thumping populism of a war on drugs does nothing to address the problems is long overdue. The war that must be conducted in relation to problem drug misuse is a war on poverty. That is the war that will tackle problem drug misuse…
“I hope that the committee members recognise that it is not good enough that a central allocation of some £34 billion of public money from Westminster is spent on national debt, when we have such high rates of poverty in Scotland and throughout the UK. I also hope that they recognise my regret that the new money that has been mentioned for rehabilitation is part and parcel of the local government settlement. The local government settlement for Glasgow was 0.5 per cent below the average settlement across Scotland. Glasgow is, unfortunately, the heroin capital not just of Britain, but of Europe. It is also the poverty capital of Europe, and those two features are no coincidence. It is not good enough that resources for treatment, and particularly for rehabilitation, are so ill skewed towards Glasgow, which deserves more resources because the problems are so much more concentrated there…
“As well as a war on poverty, we need a war on hypocrisy about problem drug misuse. We have major problems in our society with problem drug misuse, but they are not all related to heroin. Last year in Scotland, there were 13,000 premature tobacco-related deaths, 1,000 premature alcohol related deaths and, tragically, 163 premature heroin-related deaths, according to the Registrar General for Scotland. The point, and the reason that I asked Bill Aitken (Glasgow Tory MSP) to admit that the Westminster strategy was wrong for all those years, is that according to the figures from the Registrar General for Scotland, in 1994 there were 52 deaths from heroin and in 1999 there were 163 deaths from heroin. That is a 200 per cent increase in premature deaths. The problem with Bill Aitken‘s strategy is that it failed. It led to more addicts, more deaths, more crime and more addiction. That is why we must shift towards a change in our drugs laws. We must break the link between heroin supply and cannabis supply.
Let us stop criminalising one in four of the Scottish population for using a drug that is no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. Let us promote no drugs; let us promote alternative lifestyles. We should promote sport and stop criminalising young people using cannabis; they are being victimised for a victimless crime. If we could unlink the supply of cannabis from that of heroin, we could isolate the heroin dealers.
Finally, we should investigate what happens in Switzerland and the Netherlands, where addicts are now supplied with pharmaceutical heroin, in recognition of the fact that methadone is more addictive, more toxic and can be more damaging than pharmaceutical heroin. We must investigate other maintenance programmes” http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=4295&mode=pdf.
Here’s what the tabloid Daily Record had to say about my contribution eighteen years ago, when it had a considerably bigger circulation than it has now. Under the front page headline ‘Working Class Zero’ they wrote on March 23rd 2001:
“On the day the horrific extent of Scotland’s drug problem is revealed, suntanned designer MSP Tommy Sheridan is trying to have cannabis legalised … MSP Tommy Sheridan sank to a new low yesterday when he hijacked a debate on child victims of drugs. As parliament tried to discuss Scotland’s toll of misery, the sun- tanned Socialist parroted calls for the legalisation of cannabis. Furious MSPs slapped Sheridan down when he repeatedly interrupted yesterday’s vital debate. Deputy social justice minister Margaret Curran (former New Labour Minister) said:
“You need to listen to the ordinary working-class people of Glasgow if you think cannabis is not a problem.”
Sheridan cut a lonely, isolated figure on the parliaments cross benches. He even launched a vain bid to have the parliament endorse legalising pot. But the move was thrown out”.
The Daily Record editorial that day was markedly different from their editorial line yesterday. Under the strident headline ‘RECORD VIEW You’re such a bam-pot, Sheridan’ they said:
“In a bizarre display, which provoked the fury and disgust of his fellow-members, Tommy Sheridan destroyed what little credibility he had left. The difference is that Sheridan spouts about the link between drugs and deprivation, while others are prepared to tackle the hard issues head-on. Scotland is marching with the Record against drugs. Only the shameless Sheridan is out of step”.
The reason I was daubed “shameless” was because I refused to sign up to that newspaper’s hypocritical ‘Scotland Against Drugs’ campaign and march in April that year as it was nauseatingly hypocritical. It was giving out free lager tokens to those who purchased the paper while pressurising everyone else to endorse their campaign. It wasn’t me who was “shameless” it was them. They were trying to boost dwindling sales by pretending to care about Scotland’s drug abuse problem while giving away free alcoholic lager tokens at the same time. It was an absolutely pathetic strategy that many more MSPs should have had the courage to expose and resist.
Earlier that month that newspaper was angry that I organised an event to promote legalisation of cannabis to coincide with their hypocritical march against drugs.
In another front page tirade on 7th March 2001 under the headline ‘THE WIT AND WISDOM OF DOPEY TOMMY’ they wrote:
“Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan lamely tried to defend his attempt to hold a pro-pot march as “a protest against drug abuse in a different way”. The MSP admits that he chose April 1 for his rally deliberately to clash with the Daily Record’s anti-drugs march. But he said that fears of clashes between rival demonstrators were “p***”. And the dopey MSP even claimed that his protest is just another approach in the fight against the evils of the drugs trade destroying a generation.
He said: “The way to drive out the dealers from our schemes is to legalise cannabis and offer addicts heroin on prescription in medically supervised conditions.”
Sheridan and his supporters wanted to meet at the City Chambers, but Glasgow City Council rejected the plan. After hearing the council’s decision, Sheridan said: “I certainly hope we will go ahead with our march.
“The biggest difference between us and the Record is we think drugs laws are part of the problem and the Record thinks they are the solution.”
Therein sits the hypocrisy of tabloids like the Daily Record and many politicians. They have changed their tunes now on the need to change the drugs laws to tackle the problems of illegal drug use but without an apology to the many people who have been arguing for such an approach for years and facing ridicule and scurrilous headlines as a result.
When I was arguing for the drug laws to be changed as part of a multi-faceted strategy of increased rehabilitation and treatment services and the change from a criminal to a public health approach the number of heroin related deaths was 163. That was eighteen years ago. The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland last year soared to 1,187, according to official statistics.
The figure is 27% higher than the previous year, and the highest since records began in 1996.
It means there were more drug-related deaths in Scotland last year than the 1,136 alcohol-specific deaths https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-48938509.
And the country’s drug death rate is now nearly three times that of the UK as a whole, and is higher than that reported for any other EU country.
Tackling the scourge of problem drug use requires more than one response. Recognition that it is a health problem and not a criminal one is essential but must be tied to increased resources for drug addiction treatment and support as well as wider measures to eradicate poverty and the hopelessness it brings in its wake.
A golfer would win nothing if he or she carried only one club in their bag. Drivers, putters and several irons are prerequisites for success. So in the approach to problem drug use we have to deploy several policies and legalisation, not decriminalisation, of cannabis and other drugs is a vital start.
All drugs currently illegal should be legalised, regulated, licenced and taxed. Advertising should be prohibited but the state not criminal and violent gangs should be responsible for the sale of drugs. The millions in tax revenues generated should be dedicated to drug addiction and treatment programmes. The current provision of such services is woefully inadequate. Even the leading candidate in the Democratic Presidential nomination race, Bernie Sanders, endorses this approach with his clear and forthright commitment to legalise marijuana in America https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bernie-sanders-2020-marijuana-plan_us_5db213f7e4b0bc7f96fe5c7b?ri18n=true.
Alcohol is legal but not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. Tobacco is legal but less and less people are smoking. Cannabis, heroin, cocaine being legally available under strict licenced conditions will not lead to more addicts but it will lead to safer use. Education and investment in healthier living and lifestyles is central to qualitative life improvements but the drugs laws are part of the problem not part of the solution. They have to be changed fundamentally as soon as possible.