Scottish Government using ‘placebo policies’ over drugs deaths

Press/Media: Expert Comment


THE Scottish Government opted for “placebo policies” in its multimillion-pound response to the drug deaths crisis rather than tackling the issue’s root causes, academics have said.  

A new report by academics at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has accused ministers of preferring a “managerial response” to the crisis instead of tackling it on a fundamental level.

The report painted a picture of a close relationship between the Scottish Government and organisations picked to respond to the crisis at the exclusion of other voices its authors considered key to tackling drug deaths, while also failing to address “entrenched intergenerational and postcode inequality”.

The report, written by Dr Iain McPhee and Barry Sheridan, said the Scottish Government had funnelled cash into the Corra Foundation, which in turn fed money into charities and other organisations to support frontline efforts to tackle the crisis.

But they said using a third party meant the Scottish Government was able to dodge its legal requirements to tackle inequality in policymaking.

The report noted that the Drug Deaths Taskforce (DDTF) made only one recommendation for the Scottish Government “to tackle poverty and inequality” in its final report, published in July last year.

Absent from its recommendations entirely, the report added, was a recommendation for the Government to work in tandem with Community Planning Partnerships, which have “a statutory responsibility to tackle inequality and develop local strategic plans for areas experiencing multiple disadvantage”.  The report severely criticised the DDTF’s creation of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) standards – which McPhee and Sheridan characterised as failing to “specifically address the social determinants of health”, which the authors argued was key in tackling the drugs crisis.  

The MAT standards are the key outcome of the DDTF’s work and set out a range of targets against which ministers can review the performance of health boards in treating people who use drugs as well as the performance of other organisations involved in the state’s response.

McPhee told the Sunday National the MAT standards were essentially a “managerial response” to the crisis which superficially appeared to be partly effective.

He said: “The MAT standards are in part a managerial response, i.e. the creation of targets some of which can be achieved as a means to create the conditions for claiming partial policy success.

“The work of the DDTF and the ‘national mission’ avoid having to engage with the wicked problem and policy trap that is entrenched intergenerational and postcode inequality that we label the ‘social determinants of drug related deaths’.”

The report added: “Had the membership of the DDTF included wider public sector representatives, then programmes with a direct focus on tackling social determinants of drug deaths may have emerged.”

And it criticised the nature of the relationship between the Scottish Government and the third sector, saying it was not transparent enough and it was exclusionary of outside voices.

It recommended a “a more inclusive collaborative approach to develop drug and alcohol policy and programmes, to include a wider membership that addresses the social determinants of drug-related deaths”.  

It said the Corra Foundation’s involvement in doling out money to third sector organisations must be stopped with “public sector bodies” taking sole responsibility for funding the state’s response to the crisis.

McPhee said: “These publicly-funded organisations are in essence becoming large bureaucracies, and as such, much of the large sums of monies that could be directed to areas of greatest need to comply with the Equalities Act…do not get where it is required – [which are] those areas that suffer the greatest health inequalities, and greatest numbers of drug deaths.”

He added that the current arrangements led to a lack of accountability and transparency when assessing the impact of measures taken to tackle the drugs crisis.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The taskforce was made up of individuals selected for their expertise in a personal capacity or on behalf of the organisations they represent, including those with lived and family experience.

“Their final report is comprehensive, critical, challenging, and we welcome it.

“Scottish Government policies to tackle this public health emergency are evidence-based and aim to get as many people as possible into the treatment which works for them while supporting a human rights-based approach to service delivery.”

Period29 Jan 2023

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleScottish Government using ‘placebo policies’ over drugs deaths
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletThe National
    Media typeWeb
    Duration/Length/Size2 pages
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    DescriptionA new peer reviewed journal article by Dr Iain McPhee and Barry Sheridan explains that drug policy developed by the Scottish government and supported by existing government funded policy organisations has contributed rather than reduced the high rates of drug deaths that occur in the 35 and over age category of individuals who resided in areas of deprivation. These polices are described as placebo policies for failing to address poverty and inequality as a significant risk factor in drug related deaths.
    Producer/AuthorHamish Morrison and Iain McPhee
    PersonsIain McPhee


  • drug related death
  • drug treatment
  • drug policy
  • placebo policy
  • Scottish Government
  • policy networks