Former Glasgow University professor Neil McKeganey has long been BBC Scotland’s favourite go-to-guy when they wanted somebody to try to undermine the Scottish Government’s ant-drugs strategy. One rogue academic against the evidence of many experts; that’ll will be ‘balance’, I guess.
Now we hear, in the Herald today, that his research unit has been funded by those champions of addiction, the tobacco companies. What might their motivation for funding him be? Might they be worried that the decriminalisation of cannabis will affect their profits?
We saw at the SNP conference in October 2016 support moves to decriminalise and regulate the use of Marijuana for medical use. Needless to say, the UK Home Office has denied permission. At the same time, we can see the first steps toward price-control for that most deadly of drugs in Scotland, Alcohol. So, that’s two enlightened pieces of policy-making the Scottish Government can take pride in. There’s now a third, ‘supervised injection sites’ (SIS). These are places supervised by nurses and guarded by the police where addicts can inject with clean needles in a safe environment. Here’s what Susan Millar, chairwoman of the Alcohol and Drugs Partnership in Glasgow told the BBC about the value of SIS:
‘We believe it will improve the health of the target population as well as benefit local communities and businesses that are currently adversely affected by public injecting. People injecting drugs in public spaces are experiencing high levels of harm and are impacting on the wider community. We need to make our communities safer for all people living in, and visiting the city, including those who publicly inject. Similar schemes operate in 10 other countries, including Australia, Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland. ADP argues that those who inject on the streets are responsible for the majority of discarded needles which pose a health risk and contribute to public order problems. It also says street users experience problems such as homelessness, mental health issues and poverty, and are at heightened risk of blood-borne viruses, overdose and drug-related death, as well as other injecting-related complications. The Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF), a drugs policy and information organisation, has estimated there about 90 similar injecting facilities operating around the world, most of them in Europe.’
The SIS programme at UCLA in the USA also points to major benefits:
‘While conventional services in the United States include HIV counseling, outreach, and educational programs, safe injection sites are able to provide a plethora of additional benefits that are overlooked by such programs. As seen in countries that adopted these sites early on, heroin addiction rates have plummeted. In areas like Amsterdam, according to Dutch health services, virtually no heroin addicts under the age of 40 exist as their programs have successfully limited the rise of new addicts.’
So that’s the SNP conference, all the Scottish medical professions, the Scottish police force and evidence from abroad. When you read that, it’s kind of a no-brainer, I’d say, but wait, one man disagrees and BBC Scotland with their commitment to balance felt obliged to give him an extended opportunity to make his case for continuing with the ‘War on Drugs.’ Here’s what he said to the BBC:
‘Prof Neil McKeganey, founder of the Centre of Drug Misuse Research, said Mr Liddell [Scottish Drugs Forum] was “quite wrong” to imply the rooms were not controversial. “For anyone who’s not an advocate of drugs de-criminalisation they are controversial and they will be seen as such,” he told the BBC. “Some years ago, we surveyed over 1,000 drug addicts in Scotland and we asked them what they wanted to get from treatment. “Less than 5% said they wanted to help to inject more safely and the overwhelming majority said they wanted help to become drugs free. These facilities have a role to play but there is a real danger here we are moving steadily away from services to get addicts off drugs.’
Straight-off, I’m astonished that Professor McKegany imagines that if you ask drug addicts what they want the most that they would not tell you that they want to get off the drugs. I haven’t seen his methodology but were safe injection sites mentioned at all? Could their preferences have been due to interviewer effect? Furthermore, even if we accept that drug addicts want to get off drugs more than anything else how does that reduce in any way the great advantages of the SIS for them and for the rest of us? It kind of sounds like Professor McKeganey has an obsession with winning a war everyone else wants to stop fighting. Has he seen Narcos?
The BBC report seems to suggest this is contested ground with strong evidence-based arguments being made for and against the safe injection sites but I can’t find anyone else supporting Professor McKeganey’s views. I’ve no doubt there are plenty unqualified ‘moaning minnies’ out there who would rather cold turkey was the only treatment but are we really saying this is an issue where we have to hear both sides of an argument and where the entire medical professions, the local authorities and the police forces agree SIS is a good thing? Dare I suggest that they couldn’t just let the Scottish Government get a bit of credit for progressive policy-making in the face of UK conservatism, again? I know I’m paranoid. Everybody says I am so I must be.
Back to Professor McKeganey, for further consideration of the need for his balancing views, see this:
‘In 2012 Neil was awarded the Nils Bejerot Award for Global Drug Prevention by The World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD) in recognition of career in drug research and for his contributions to drug policy, in particular for his championing of drug free policies, much like Nils Bejerot did in Sweden. Nils Bejerot (September 21, 1921 – November 29, 1988) was a Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist best known for his work on drug abuse and for coining the phrase Stockholm syndrome. His view that drug abuse was a criminal matter and that drug use should have severe penalties was highly influential in Sweden and in other countries. He believed that the cure for drug addiction was to make drugs unavailable and socially unacceptable.’
Note that Bejerot was dead by 1988! Pablo Escobar was still in his one Flamingo-land then. Might he have changed his views after another nearly 30 years of the bloody war on drugs? I know that many chiefs of police have done so.
Also, Bejerot was not influential in his home country Sweden, on government actions on drug treatment. See this from the NY Times:
‘…he remained a controversial figure in Sweden because of his emphasis on prevention rather than treatment of drug addiction. Fifteen years ago he advocated banishing drug abusers to ”therapeutic villages” to prevent the spread of what he regarded as a contagion of epidemic proportions.‘Although successive national administrations had to deal with Sweden’s growing drug problem, colleagues noted that Dr. Bejerot had never been named to a Government-sponsored study group or other official post.’
Further The World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD) is problematic if being used as a source of expertise. Wikipedia, in 2012, began an investigation into their ‘notability’, the key criterion for inclusion in Wikipedia. Here’s what one of their assessors wrote:
‘I can’t find any indication of notability for this advocacy group. The only references I can find to them are from other advocacy groups (or advocacy groups claiming to be newspapers, like the one currently in the article). Unless there is evidence of the group being the subject of significant discussion in multiple independent sources, the article should be deleted.’
All of this is quite damning, I’d say, for the ideas of Bejerot, especially nearly 30 years after his death when so much has changed in thinking about drug abuse treatment and for the authenticity and value of WFAD. BBC Scotland has many research assistants, all graduates. They should be right on this kind of thing.