Fiona Gilbertson argues that the criminalisation of people who use drugs is inhumane, and ineffective.

By Fiona Gilbertson

Fiona Gilbertson believes the War on Drugs in Scotland is inhumane, ineffective and costly (Image: Daily Record)

Those with “lived experience” of drugs often feel cast aside by policy makers as one disastrous government response runs into another.

As Scotland seeks to dig itself out of a mire that sees us tagged as the worst nation in Europe for drug deaths, new approaches are being put forward. On Monday, eight people with experience of 
drug problems will give evidence to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee in Edinburgh. 

One witness, Fiona Gilbertson, tells here how her Recovering Justice group has given voice to people who have lived through drug addiction. Fiona, like most of the other witnesses, believes that the criminalisation of people who use drugs is inhumane, ineffective and costly. She argues for new approaches…

I am a former problematic drug user. Most people I knew didn’t make it.

Before their deaths, they were arrested more times than they were offered help and spent more time in prison than rehab or recovery.They had their children removed, sometimes for nothing more than a failed drug test and being in the wrong postcode.

They were stigmatised and shamed and told there was no funding when they asked for help. They died from preventable diseases, preventable drug poisonings, violence and suicide.

Those who did survive are often scared to talk openly about their drug use. I now have a level of privilege 
that allows me to speak publicly – I have no children who could be removed and I am not homeless or living in a deprived area, so I am unlikely to be targeted for drug use. 

The drug war was at its height in the 80s. I was an intravenous heroin user back then. Drugs were public enemy No1 and the “Just Say No” campaign was in full swing.

Police in Edinburgh took a hardline approach. They threatened every chemist who was selling injecting 
equipment with closure and arrest. 

The law was interpreted in such a way that having a syringe could incur a three-month jail term. Policy was focused on eradicating drug users, rather than drugs. 

This drove people underground, creating environments where one needle would be shared with dozens 
of users. 

Edinburgh became known as the AIDS capital of Europe. Up to 60 per cent of the drug-injecting community contracted HIV. In Glasgow, which had adopted a harm-reduction approach, the figure was zero per cent. 

Ninety per cent of people who try drugs will not develop a problem. I am one of the 10 per cent. For me, drugs were always going to have consequences.

But HIV, a criminal record and trauma from police violence are consequences of policy, not drug use.

My friends who died in their 20s in Edinburgh died of AIDS. They died as a direct consequence of policy driven by fear and ignorance.


More than 25 years after Edinburgh was declared the AIDS capital of Europe, Scotland is now the drug death capital of Europe.

Two years ago, there was an HIV epidemic in Glasgow among people who have no homes.

If this war was going to be ended on evidence alone, it would have been over a long time ago.

Like every other social justice issue, the stories of people most affected will be key to changing public 
perception and we need to listen before we lose another generation. 

We are fighting a war on drugs that is a war on people who use drugs, their families and communities.

The most economically and socially vulnerable Scots are dying unnecessarily. If Scotland is to continue as a just and inclusive society, we need to dismantle policy that is unfair. 

We must declare a public health emergency, disregard the unfit-for-purpose Misuse of Drugs Act and draft new policy fit for our country and all its citizens. 

7 other witnesses who will give their accounts on how to stop drug deaths when Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee sits in Edinburgh

1. “War on Drugs grinds people to a paste.”

“I’m a 64 years old man and I have been routinely using illegal drugs since I was 13.

“I started out as a hippie, believing that young people and love would change the world. I was in an accident in which my fiancée was killed and died horribly in my arms.

“I then became dependent on prescription painkillers and sedatives. When my doctor in the UK refused to consider maintaining my prescription from abroad I was in deep trouble.

“I started using heroin. I could tell brutal ‘war stories’ about the drug world – the saddest of those stories always involving people being ground down into paste – hurt and damaged and dying in their 20s and 30s.

“This War on Drugs costs too much. It is pure ideology. It isn’t rational. It doesn’t seek to reduce harm or use resources wisely.”

2. “Short term, reactive policies are doomed to failure.”

“I’m in my 50s and I’m a mother of two young men in their early 20s. My youngest suffers from bipolar disorder and my eldest is in recovery from alcohol and drug misuse.

“Both have had the misfortune of having to experience drug induced psychoses. The criminal justice and mental health systems have failed to offer any credible solutions but rather have added significantly to the sense of utter despair, isolation and shame we have felt as a family.

“Current services are reactive rather than proactive, this needs to change. It is a false economy and a result of the short termism too often seen in policy making. “

3. “Cannabis saved my life.”

“I consider myself fortunate, I didn’t become addicted to the terrifyingly strong opioids that are legally prescribed to people like myself suffering from chronic illnesses, I have chemical sensitivities that makes me allergic to them.

“I’ve witnessed friends become addicted to these legal drugs and lose everything because they had a sore back, others buying street heroin after being told there’s nothing else the NHS has to offer them when the opiates stop working.

“Cannabis saved my life and continues to do so, but because of the current drug laws I am now a daily practicing criminal who wakes up every morning wondering if its going to be the day I get arrested and imprisoned for trying to stay alive and pain free.”

4. “The war on drugs is a a war on the poor.”

An award winning director, in his 40s, who went through a traumatic childhood systematically let down by the care and social work systems and grew up in an HIV epidemic which decimated his community watching first hand public health disasters implemented by the NHS.

“The war on drugs is a war on people who use drugs and more accurately poor people who use drugs.”

5. “Imprisonment for drugs offences isolated me, stopped me form being part of society.”

“In my 60s I’m a man who has used drugs for nearly 45 years and have faced many problems because of the way our society has criminalised drug use. I have chronic, preventable health problems , been imprisoned and consequently felt alienated from the mainstream .

“Stigma and discrimination reduced my life chances as far as employment went.

“This was something that was endemic within my community and was widespread.”

6. Prison system gave me even more drugs, drove me to heroin.

“A man in my 40s, I have been in recovery going on nearly 6 years now, I was in active addiction for 20 years. I was imprisoned as a direct result of my drug use .

“While in prison I was not offered treatment or detox but given higher quantities of drugs, giving me more serious issues than I went in with.

“Upon release with no intervention/drug support of any kind, I was off and running with harder and more accessible drugs such as heroin.

“I felt judged and stigmatised as a problem of rather than as a young adult who was struggling with other issues. There was no interest in my story, my history or how I got to this point There was just judgement and shame, once the soul is touched by shame it lasts a lifetime.”

7. Prison blighted my life and didn’t help my addiction.

“I’m a woman in my late 50s and in long term recovery from both heroin and prescription drugs. My whole life has been blighted by this because of the criminal justice system.

“I was sent to prison (on remand) when many woman were being arrested with their partners due to both political and media pressure. “Addiction is NOT a criminal justice issue. In my humble opinion, it’s time to wake up and support drug policy reform I have faced medical discrimination,due to my past history, as recently as 12 months ago.”

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