Never before have so many people died of drugs in Scotland. Official statistics report that there were at least 1264 last year. That is more than twice as many as five years ago, four times as many as 20 years ago – and three times as many as in England and Wales. According to a report by the House of Commons, Scotland is just “in the middle” of the drug crisis.
How could it possibly come this far? With the so-called “Trainspotting” generation, the number of heroin addicts in Scotland skyrocketed in the 1980s. The teenagers of the past are now aging – faster than their peers. Their bodies tolerate the substances worse and worse, they are weakened by diseases. The greatest increase in deaths in recent years has been in the 35 to 54 age group, accounting for two thirds of all drug deaths.
The aid system is chronically underfunded, says Andrew McAuley, an expert at Glasgow Caledonian University. Only about 40 percent of those addicted to hard drugs take part in aid programs here, in England it is about 60 percent.
For many of these addicts, it is now less about perspective than about survival. A committee on the Scottish drug crisis suggested that the British Parliament set up “safe consumption rooms”: places of consumption where addicts can take drugs in a safe environment – and should be rescued if they overdose. So far, the move has failed due to legal issues.
The Scottish Government points out that consumption rooms for illegal drugs would not be legal under the National Drugs Act of 1971 and an amendment would have to be decided in London. Independent lawyers and public health experts, on the other hand, point to a reading of the law that classifies locker rooms as legal.
Peter Krykant can’t wait any longer. From the age of eleven he took drugs regularly and lived on the streets as a heroin addict until his twenties. Today, at the age of 44, he stands up for those who have not found a way into another life. He’s been driving a converted van through Glasgow every Friday since September to give addicts at least a moment’s security.
The seats inside are covered with foil, disinfectant and fresh needles are available in two places. Two thirds of the addicts who come to him bring cocaine with them, the rest inject heroin. Some take both at the same time.
Krykant is exhausted. The death toll wore him down, he says. But he would even go to jail for his project. During the video call, he repeatedly puffs on an electronic cigarette and makes himself a coffee.
SPIEGEL: With the somewhat controversial legal situation – how do the people in Glasgow react to your van?
Krykant: You all benefit from having no used needles and cutlery lying around. We are greeted warmly, also by the operators of the surrounding shops. A resident offers us warm drinks from time to time.
SPIEGEL: How do you get along with the police?
Krykant: Very good. The police officers who are on duty in the affected parts of the city know that something has to change. They have seen the same misery for decades and tolerate my efforts. They only wanted to search the van once. I couldn’t allow that because there were several addicts in it. So I got a warning about disability. But it had nothing to do with running the van. And there was nothing to complain about in a subsequent search.
SPIEGEL: What are the fates that affect you particularly?
Krykant: There is a 20 year old woman who has been coming to me almost all the time, for six or seven weeks. She has had a highly traumatic past, has been homeless, and has been using heroin since she was 15. Her forearms are littered with signs of self-harm like I’ve never seen before. Every week when I see her I am relieved. Of course not because she injects heroin in my van. But because I’m grateful that she is still alive. She didn’t come last Friday, that kept me busy all week.
SPIEGEL: What kind of help does she need?
Krykant: She injects every day. If we had safe places to eat in Glasgow, she would be one of those people who would seek help there seven days a week instead of being fixed on the street. So we only know from Friday to Friday when I’m on my bus that she’s still alive.
SPIEGEL: The decriminalization of drug use is always up for debate as a solution.
Krykant: Legalization would benefit those who use drugs but have no major problems with them. Those who are caught with small amounts and therefore receive a report. That would be practical for them. But it only helps those who really need help if the money that would otherwise be used for police checks goes to help.
SPIEGEL: Over 20 years ago, when you were in your early 20s, you went into rehab at the Princess Diana Center. What was the saving impulse back then?
Krykant: I’ve been given opportunities. I lived on the street in Birmingham when the government gave more funding to the homeless program there. So I got long-term psychological help and a structured weaning plan, which saved me. I was able to take a break on the coast. And I was able to learn basic things that gave me structure.
SPIEGEL: What for example?
Krykant: Like going to a supermarket. Or how I can make myself breakfast. A breakfast that feeds me with toast and eggs, yogurt, honey, things like that. That can be a first step. When you’ve been on the streets since your teenage years, such simple things are alien. You feel lonely and sad when in reality you may be hungry.
SPIEGEL: You then found a job. Today you are married and have two children.
Krykant: I was lucky. I found work in a call center, worked my way up into management within a year, and stayed with the company for eight years. My employers have been fantastic. They knew about my past from the start.
SPIEGEL: Have conditions for drug addicts improved since your time?
Krykant: That’s what’s frustrating: it’s just like it was back then. People inject their drugs in exactly the same horrible alleyways that I did back then. Nothing has happened.
SPIEGEL: Yesterday you protested in your van in front of the Scottish Parliament for safe consumption rooms. With success?
Krykant: The Scottish Government recycles the same statements over and over again. She is doing everything possible to distract from the fact that Scotland has by far the worst drug problem in Europe. We are not talking about a few dead, but about 1200 in the past year. And 2020 won’t have been better.
SPIEGEL: Why is politics not facing the problem?
Krykant: The Scottish government is obviously instrumentalizing the crisis in the struggle for independence. That is their main concern. Her argument is that drug policy will be decided in London – and only when Scotland is independent can she deal with the problem. But England and Wales have the same laws as we do, and the situation there is much better. Scotland’s government bears complete responsibility for the disaster. Over the past 13 years that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been in power, the death toll has risen steadily.
SPIEGEL: What would independence improve on drug policy?
Krykant: It would go like Brexit. Even if we got a new independence referendum after the 2021 election, it would be years before we left the UK. And well over a thousand people would die in each of those years. What makes me really angry is when people on social media dock my campaign with an independence campaign. I don’t care about independence. What I mean is that three people are going to die of drugs in Scotland today. And that is avoidable because nobody has to die from an overdose in safe consumption rooms.
SPIEGEL: But the campaign with the van attracts attention, you will find more and more supporters for your campaign.
Krykant: Yes, recently at the demonstration in front of Parliament, several MPs from different parties came out and gave us their approval. These included a MP from the ruling SNP party, a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat and three or four Labor MPs. It was good to have this bipartisan endorsement. A MP once publicly donated £ 1,000, which was a strong sign.
SPIEGEL: What about the government?
Krykant: Our Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon will not stand on a podium and talk about these dead, as she talks about corona deaths every day. Because Corona can affect anyone, even in the most affluent areas. But the drug deaths mainly come from socially disadvantaged environments. Politicians are now using the crisis as a means of fighting for Scottish independence.
SPIEGEL: But finally, the good news for you came: Nicola Sturgeon invited you for an interview at the beginning of January.
Krykant: Presumably she would now like to take the matter into her own hands. She probably just wants to hear what could help.