A new approach to drugs for the Trainspotting generation

Kenny MacAskill
Thursday, 21 July 2016

The stars have been in Edinburgh for the filming of Trainspotting 2. Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and other actors have been on the streets of the capital as the sequel to the 1990s cult movie Trainspotting is shot. The original was a great hit based on the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name and depicted drug use in the city in a raw and shocking way. The plot of the sequel is said to be based on the original characters - though two decades on.

The film will undoubtedly raise the issue of drug use in Edinburgh and Scotland once again. But, will it be a depiction of the problem from two decades ago or highlight the issue as it is now? Both then and in the original movie the problem was hard drugs and needles now much as elsewhere is tablets and New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

At the same time as filming is ongoing in the city discussion is taking place in corridors of power over injection rooms. Their use was raised in the wake of the original movie and when intravenous drug use was at its height in the country. Edinburgh itself had particular issues with HIV through IV drug use. Though drug policy is reserved to Westminster the medical prescription of controlled drugs is already on the statute book.

Moreover, health remains the domain of the devolved Scottish Government. Hence the provision of such rooms is within the competency of the Scottish authorities notwithstanding the limitation on more radical change. Its use was considered but rejected though by the then Labour/Liberal Administration back in 2003.

Focusing the spotlight

However, it is back on the agenda and the movie may well focus the spotlight on the needs and requirements, albeit of a diminishing number, of drug users. Drug deaths have been high in Scotland over recent years more often due to what has been termed ‘The Trainspotting Generation’, dying off as their bodies have been unable to cope after years of substance abuse; rather than any significant increase in drug taking or any new lethal cocktail being sold on the streets.

Drug use has been changing and adapting though as the lethal cocktail of mixing alcohol consumption with the taking of cocaine or other narcotics has grown and NPS have arrived in our towns and cities. Both, from a law enforcement perspective, and more widely, the problem has shifted from the habits of the original Trainspotting cast to a new age. A younger generation have been indulging in many new and often, until recent changes, legal concoctions as much, if not more, than the heroin and other substances of past times. 

So what affect will the film have on public perception of the drug issue in the city and will the Scottish Government be prepared to countenance injection rooms? There must be a likelihood that the movie will reinforce the stereotypical image of drug taking from two decades ago. Renton and Begbie have after all achieved cult status in Scotland and put Edinburgh on the drug taking map. Though to be fair their like both existed then and some are still here and hanging on to life.

It may though continue to play to the gallery that drug use is by a marginalised few and more often the cause of their own misfortune. That’s understandable in many ways and the misconceptions are not confined to Scotland. The imagery is of drugs being evil and alcohol benign, narcotics being needles and heroin not tablets or chemicals obtainable in many suburban retail outlets; and most important of all perhaps drug takers them whilst they’re us. To be fair that would not be the fault of the movie but the result of the narrative already created in both Scottish and wider society. 

Atmosphere of concern

However, if the movie creates an atmosphere of concern once again over the issue of hard drugs and allows room for manoeuvre for the Scottish Government to try new options, albeit 20 years on, then it will be an opportunity; and one hopefully to be taken. The rejection by the former administration was at a time when new thinking was being rejected and the war on drugs at its height. 

This is not just a new movie but a new era. New policies are being invoked whether in Portugal or the United States. Drug taking has changed in Scotland but some old issues still remain.  Injection rooms have been used in Switzerland and the Netherlands without the collapse of society as we know it. The law already allows for its dispensation. Lives will be saved as consumption is supervised and substances regulated. Deaths up stairways and through harmful products limited.  

If the film allows the government to proceed to trial its use here in Scotland, albeit for an ageing cohort and some new bit part players, then it will be a good thing; as well as hopefully an entertaining movie. 

Kenny MacAskill was the Scottish Justice Secretary between 2007 and 2014.