Ayrshire has always been an area affected by poverty and unemployment. These issues, combined with strained social services meant that a drug crisis in the area was almost inevitable.
Unfortunately, as the drug trade has boomed, organised crime has moved in, with police reporting there are now four serious and well organised groups profiting off the back of Ayrshire’s drug habit. Among the numerous measures the police have taken in response, some give cause for concern.
The police recently presented a report to South Ayrshire council stating that they had, over the previous year, put more funding into combating the rise of drug related crime, highlighting their tactic of targeting suppliers to strangle the gang’s income, as well as preventing these drugs from reaching buyers. This increase in funding has already shown results, with an increase in the number of drug apprehensions in Ayrshire compared to the same period last year.
New blood has been introduced with the appointment of Mark Hargreaves, taking over the role of Divisional Commander. Nicknamed the “Hammer of the drug dealers of Ayrshire” by the Daily Record- a title that’s a mouthful but invokes the right feeling of the man- Mark is a veteran of the police force of nearly twenty years and before moving to Ayrshire worked in the East End of Glasgow, as well as Pollock and Govan.
Mark appears to be a man well suited to taking on the drug trade in Ayrshire, both in experience and in attitude. When appointed to the role he specifically called out drug use as a poison in communities, arguing that the presence of drugs in an area leads to an increase in more serious violent crimes.
One facet of this new anti drug trade strategy that is being implemented across Ayrshire is an increased emphasis on coordinating with the community and local businesses. This includes Taxi Marshals, street pastors and even pubs. One such incident resulted in three individuals being caught with drugs in their possession while out in Ayr in early September.
And therein lies the problem. The new spotlight on the drug problem across Ayrshire appears to target drug dealers, the people and gangs that profit from the trade and users together. Tactics like this have a history of falling apart, where the drug user is seen as a criminal rather than a victim. Instead, in areas like Portugal, where drug users are given treatment rather than jail time, far lower rates of drug use and drug related deaths are reported. Treating drug users like criminals leads to higher drug user rates and drug related deaths.
There are doubts surrounding whether or not the drug problem is getting worse in Ayrshire, or if we have simply been an area with historic issues. Ian Cavana, Counsellor for South Ayrshire, has in the past raised concerns over the narrative of increasing drug related issues in the area, instead suggested police are getting better at detecting these issues. Either way the rampancy of drug related issues is not a problem unique to Ayrshire, despite the 82 deaths reported last year; Scotland as a whole tops the charts in drug related deaths across the EU, and not by a small margin. We have nearly double the rates of Estonia, who placed second, and around three times the rate of the UK average; We also have one of the highest rates of drug use in the EU. With around 1.6% of the population estimated to be active drug users the reason behind Scotland’s depressing accolade is clear.
Benzos(like Valium and Xanax) are relatively new in terms of recreational use yet are now topping all other drugs as the leading reason for drug user deaths, with North and East Ayrshire ranking third and fourth respectively in areas of Scotland where Benzos make up the highest proportion of deaths, more so than all other drugs combined.
With new drugs entering into our community and claiming lives, what else is being done to cut off the impact of drugs in our area? The NHS offers services to help users quit drug addictions and groups like Addaction are now active in Ayrshire, trying to close any gaps in rehabilitation services. The question however, remains: Just how much enthusiasm and support do these services really receive from the powers that be?
In a recent East Ayrshire Council meeting Councillor Tom Cook said that a number of constituents had stated they find the presence of people picking up methadone from town centre pharmacies “off-putting”, with many saying “they don’t come in to the town centre because of that.” It was then suggested that the distribution of this treatment should be moved to pharmacies outside the town centre, which would further stigmatise and ghettoise sufferers of addiction, widening the gap between physical and social rehabilitation. While South Ayrshire has an incredibly high rate of supporting people to access alcohol and drug recovery services, constantly topping the Scottish Government’s target, the language of finding people recovering from addiction as “off-putting” speaks to the ongoing need to collectively undo decades of denigrating and dehumanising disinformation propagated by media and governments. This being considered by the council gives me doubts about the faith these institutions have in rehabilitation’s importance in fighting Ayrshire’s drug crisis.
While policies that seek to help users are showing to be successful abroad, is a policy of tarring drug dealers and drug users with the same brush really going to be the policy that helps our community?