Scotland's drug deaths problem is a difficult one

We’re normally in entire agreement with Simon Jenkins on the subject of drugs and their legalisation. Get them legalised so that people can ingest what they wish - the civil liberties argument - and so that what they do is of known purity and dosage - the pragmatic one.

However. Scotland has just released figures showing a significant rise in opiates related deaths. Jenkins suggesting that this should be the trigger for further devolved action. Scotland should move closer to that legalisation model. Yes. However, matters are, as always, complicated:

Likewise, a campaign against alcohol-related deaths exploited delegated powers to levy local taxes. A rise in minimum retail prices has driven Scottish alcohol consumption to an all-time low. Both these initiatives were classic examples of local discretion leading to reform, where central government policy was stuck in a political rut.

Yes but. This is a surmise but one we think will be seen to be correct when matters are fully analysed. That reduction in alcohol use as a result of minimum pricing is the cause - or a leading cause perhaps - of that rise in opiates related deaths.

That people use opiates and alcohol together is not a surprise to anyone. That opiates users are likely to use the cheapest alcohol possible should also not be a surprise. A random bottle of industrial cider has gone from perhaps £2 to £5 as a result of the minimum pricing. This being the very aim of it, to stop people swigging cheap booze to excess.

However, people do substitute. And the rise in opiates related deaths is really driven by a rise in benzodiazepines (valium and cognates) plus opiate usage. The margin for error here in dosages is very small, the use of both classes of drugs - not just heroin and valium, but methadone as well, plus any of the benzos - will indeed cause a rise in deaths from respiratory failure, overdoses.

There are two possible causes for this rise in the joint drug use. One that a new generation of street benzos has appeared. The other that addicts are, in the face of those higher alcohol prices, substituting to those street benzos. We would probably claim that the appearance of the new benzos is caused by the greater demand given the alcohol price rises. Claim only, not insist, as we all wait for more evidence.

It’s thus possible to claim, and we would, that the rise in alcohol prices is killing people, as those addicts substitute away from the relatively save booze to the very much less safe benzos. We’re willing to be persuaded either way by good evidence of course.

We’d only make the one firm prediction about all of this. It will be near impossible to get a proper investigation into this because everyone knows that minimum alcohol pricing is the right policy implementation, don’t they? Scientific investigations of manias being rather hard to launch and no one believes the results anyway.