Policy traps and policy placebos: assessing drug policy network responses to drug related deaths

Iain McPhee*, Barry Sheridan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
107 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: This study focuses on emergency and strategic responses to drug-related deaths. This paper uses policy network theory and policy analysis frameworks to subject programme development and financial decision-making processes to critical scrutiny. Design/methodology/approach: A qualitative, case-based design focuses on Scottish Government responses to rising drug-related deaths, using publicly available data to produce interpretive critical analysis. Findings: Analysis indicates that established drug policy communities influence emergency and strategic policy and programme development in relation to drug deaths. Results reveal that policy communities aid government to develop placebo policies and avoid policy traps associated with social determinants of drug-related deaths. This study documents a lack of transparency and accountability in financial decision-making by a third party operating on behalf of Scottish Government. To improve accountability necessitates that drug policy decisions acknowledge existing legislative duties to address socio-economic inequality in this policy area. Research limitations/implications: In seeking convergence and corroboration publicly available data sources were identified that focus on emergency and strategic responses to drug-related deaths in Scotland. The authors recognise the potential for bias in qualitative and interpretive analysis of this data (Bowen, 2009). Practical implications: This study provides robust critical analysis on how policy networks exert influence on spending decisions related to drug policy in Scotland. This is useful for researchers and drug policy advisors. Originality/value: While much has been written on drug deaths in Scotland, using policy network and policy success frameworks to examine policy and programme development, provides originality of analysis in this under-researched aspect of drug policy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-52
Number of pages14
JournalDrugs, Habits and Social Policy
Issue number1
Early online date18 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2023


  • drug-related death
  • policy success
  • policy network theory
  • placebo policies
  • policy traps
  • medication assisted treatment (MAT) standards
  • fairer Scotland duty
  • inequality
  • accountability


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