Monday, 5 April 2010

Transform Drug Policy Foundation Scotland

I met Katrina and Jolene when they visted Bristol in late 2008.  Both are a real inspiration.

From the Herald

Beyond the law

‘I was still at school when I had to tell my parents, ‘I think Alan is on drugs’.

After that I was always breaking terrible news: he’s been arrested; he’s in prison; he’s dead.”
Schoolteacher Katrina Robertson, now 28, lost her heroin-addicted brother Alan in a drug-related stabbing two years ago last week – March 17, 2008. He was killed as he stepped in to protect a flatmate caught up in a scuffle at the entrance of a block of flats in Glasgow’s Shawlands.
Katrina and her cousin, Jolene Crawford, didn’t respond by calling for crackdowns on the social menace of drugs, or demanding that dealers be strung up – Alan himself was a minor dealer.
Instead, they launched Transform Drug Policy Foundation Scotland (TDPFS), a thinktank calling for a wholesale review of drug laws, including an end to the blanket prohibition of heroin. They would like to see the drug available on prescription, and argue that removing the criminality from drugs would cut much of the damage they cause. Neither do they support the banning of “legal highs” such as mephedrone.

“We are the least likely drug reform campaigners, a mother and a teacher,” says Katrina. “But Alan had used heroin for 12 years and stayed alive and relatively healthy … I am convinced he was killed not by the drug, but because of the society he was involved in.”

TDPFS was launched last autumn, and has the backing of heavyweight supporters from across Scottish society (see panel). Jolene and Katrina have never spoken before about the personal tragedy which led to their conversion from ashamed relatives who did everything they could to conceal Alan’s addiction, into campaigners who believe Scotland needs to change the way society deals with drug addiction. But now, two years after Alan’s murder, they are telling their story in the hope of provoking a public debate which they say politicians are unable or unwilling to confront. Katrina says she watched her brother slide from a happy, able boy growing up in Aberdeen, to an addict sleeping rough and ending up in prison in 2004. His death didn’t come as a surprise, but the manner of it shocked her: “I felt like I’d lost Alan to heroin years ago, but I’d been waiting for him to come back.”

They were pupils at Aberdeen Grammar School when it began. She says many children their age were experimenting with drugs. Katrina and Jolene describe Alan as a “charmer” who once boasted: “I’m the best looking boy in Aberdeen.”
“He was a bad boy,” Katrina says. “Girls loved him and boys wanted to be him. But he lacked confidence and he struggled at school. We think he may have been dyslexic.” She and their elder brother, Neil, found out he was smoking heroin. “Money went missing, mum’s bank card, piggy banks. I found a shoebox full of ‘makings’ under his bed. There was a pen with no ink or lid, several clipper lighters and some foil with funny stains on it.” Alan was still living at home with his siblings and his mum. Their parents had separated but his dad was involved with the family and later paid for Alan to go to rehab – unsuccessfully.

Katrina watched as Alan became two people – the brother she knew and a darker figure who gradually took over: “He could be charming polite and well-mannered, but then there was ‘street’ Alan whose phone was constantly going and he would speak tersely, making arrangements to meet people. The longer the drug use went on the more the Alan I knew was being eroded and taken over.” His drug use landed Alan in Aberdeen’s Craiginches prison for a short sentence. By the time he came out, Katrina was in Glasgow, about to begin a teacher training course. “He came with me to enrol. He was excited for me and I could tell he was sad about what he was missing out on,” she says. “Because of his record, the kind of jobs he could go for were not jobs he wanted to do.”

While he was in jail, she had received phonecalls telling her to deliver money to people, otherwise he would be hurt. Desperate, she did so – feeling vulnerable sitting outside dodgy Glasgow flats in her conspicuous blue VW beetle. After prison Alan stayed with his sister for a year. He had come out clean, but rapidly slipped back to his secret life.
“When I was in third year he turned up at my door bleeding and badly beaten. He said he had been attacked by two Liverpudlians with golf clubs and he had to give them £200 or they would kill him.” At the age of 19, Katrina was as tortured by his addiction as he was, and also hiding much of what was going on from her mother.

She says: “I was worried and feeling sick all the time, but at the same time just wanted to say, ‘Get out of my face, let me get on with my life’.
“I used to blame Alan, but it is the current system that put me in that situation. We felt ashamed as a family … but it wasn’t our fault. Why should people feel like that?” In the year or two before Alan died he had shown signs of getting his life back on track. Having started out smoking heroin, he had moved to injecting, but was back to smoking it again. His life appeared calmer and his addiction at least under control. He was living with another heroin user and petty dealer in Shawlands. They looked after each other. One night when his flatmate went out only his dog came back. “Alan would have thought ‘where is he?’,” Katrina says. “He went down and found his friend was being attacked. He had been stabbed dozens of times. Alan stepped in to try to save his friend from being murdered and was stabbed twice. He was killed by one unlucky stab wound to the heart.” Alan’s friend survived. The attacker, Ian Hislop, was sentenced to life in December 2008. Katrina adds: “Alan was a heroin user and a low-level dealer, so was his flatmate, so was the man who killed him. We don’t know, but I would guess somebody owed money to somebody. There were no drugs or weapons on Alan or in the flat.”

Desolate after Alan’s death, the pair felt they should do something. They thought about campaigning for more rehabilitation facilities, but the more they looked at the evidence the more they became convinced that drug policies are based on a lie. But their views are rejected by some people, including Professor Neil McKeganey, of Glasgow University’s Centre for Drug Misuse Research. He insists the suggestion that decriminalising drugs would improve the situation is “rose-coloured politics” and claims there is no strong evidence that criminalisation is harmful. “Take mephedrone – that will not become more harmful if it is made illegal. It will be made illegal because we’re increasingly aware of its harmful consequences.” Jolene is emphatic that the reverse is true. It is prohibitionists, she believes, who have no evidence for the success of current policies, while there are convincing grounds both that current policy is failing and that other approaches work better.

“We don’t want to tell people what to think, we want an open debate,” she says. “We are so confident people would see the evidence is there in black and white.” TDPFS highlights evidence such as that from Portugal, the first European country to abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of any drugs. Since 2001, addicts have been offered treatment and therapy instead of jail time. The number of teenagers using illegal drugs has declined, rates of new HIV infections have fallen and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has more than doubled.
Studies have also backed the prescribing of heroin as effective in tackling drug addiction, leading to Aberdeen City Council social work chief Fred McBride recommending earlier this year that trials in the city be considered. A report commissioned by the Home Office in 2004 but never published concluded that the drug war was unwinnable and that moving from prohibition to regulation of currently illegal drugs should be an option. “The Home Office should consider wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS,” the report said.

TDPFS argues that giving heroin to opiate-dependent people would help them become citizens again, while cutting the gangsters out of the drug market would avoid much of the criminal collateral damage. The billions of pounds currently devoted to prosecuting the drugs war could be invested in treatment. TDPFS has been backed by former policemen, bishops, addiction workers, authors and former politicians. But the women know it is hard for sitting politicians to speak out. Jolene says: “We know so many people agree but they are not putting their heads above the parapet. They fear the public will not support them, but we want to bypass the politicians and go straight to the public.”
“We are signed up to this for the rest of our lives,” Katrina adds. “People say you can’t change anything, but if everybody said that we would still be living in caves.”
Jolene adds: “Imagine what it would be like in Scotland if old ladies didn’t have to be scared of drug gangs, or getting mugged by a junkie. We could change all that by prescribing heroin."

Original story can be seen here

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