For Kenny Simpson – drug policy expert, long serving copper with Police Scotland and the SCDEA and champion of sensible drug policies.
“I never judge anybody on how they are presented, everybody’s got their stories to tell, I just don’t think there is acknowledgment of that. I think there needs to be more of a caring agenda and common sense approach to drugs.”
Last week a champion died, and I don’t use that term lightly. Kenny Simpson was champion for sensible drug policy and increasing dialogue and trust between the different institutions and communities responsible for drug policy in Scotland. He represented the middle ground – not pro legalisation but keen to see reform in order to improve the lives of problematic substance users in Scotland. I knew Kenny for a short time, but what I did know of him I enjoyed immensely. Kenny was a participant of the Scottish Drug Policy Conversations since its inception, and always provided a balanced, thoughtful but passionate voice on a range of drug policy issues. I recently interviewed him for my research on narratives within Scottish drug policy communities, and the extracts and information in my piece are from this. Following my piece are thoughts and memories from participants of SDPC, which will be added to as they arrive.
Kenny was born in Glasgow, spent the first part of his life in North Yorkshire, and his secondary school years in a small town near Glasgow. He had what he described as a fairly protected life, his parent were good hardworking folk, him and his friends spent their youth walking and hanging with the dog. He joined the police in 1977 after a few months odd jobbing in Italy and Scotland and he served 2 years of uniform duties before going into plain clothes in 1980. He started off in the stolen car squad, went into CID in 1985, and moved to the drug squad in the late 80’s. It is here where he began to see the impact that heroin, and more broadly opiate based drug use and drug dealing was having on the fabric of communities. Through his work in the drug squad he became known as the go to guy on drug issues, and, in his own words: “by the time I had retired from the Police I had more and more people asking for my opinion on policy related issues, and that only stemmed from me giving evidence based sensible answers, and not reactional, judgemental, un-informed responses using improper language.”
Kenny was passionate about leaving a legacy and making sure there was an institutional memory about the changes in drug policy. “You know one day I’ll drop off the radar, I’ll probably go and do something drug related somewhere, but you know who becomes the go to person?”
In recent years Kenny was involved in many different groups and often spoke at debates on drug policy. He was not an advocate of legalisation but only because he thought it hid the real issue which is opiate abuse: “But see the whole legalisation issue for me, that’s a backburner. For me there’s wider issues than legalising it. You’re never going to legalise heroin ever, and heroin’s the issue. And I’ve said that to Mike (from SDPC), I’m fed up with the Police looking at other things when we’ve got people dying. And if we don’t try and go public and raise that agenda, you know it’s like the elephant in the room, for Scottish Government, for Police Scotland, for addiction services, for NHS, all these people are dying and it’s like [whistles] nobody bothers. It’s just another heroin user. It’s like ‘aye there was 4 heroin deaths this morning, aye well what else is new’. I think that’s a tragedy. You know, if there were 4 fatal road accidents every day, and that’s a strap line that the media have picked up: there are more drug deaths than there are fatal road accidents’. You know, if there was 4 fatal road accidents every day you’d have police initiatives, you’d have traffic department out there and they’d be on the telly…”
And fundamentally this is why he continued to be involved in the police and other groups dedicated to drug policy issues: he wanted dialogue and sensible drug policies that actually address the tragedy of drug deaths and don’t’t shy away from looking at radical options. He was pragmatic and a copper through and through, always ready with words of wisdom and encouragement. I – and many others- will miss the chats, his advice and down to earth common sense approach to life, and my heart breaks for his close friends and family. Gone far too soon, I feel it is our duty now to continue his legacy of encouraging respectful dialogue and meaningful engagement amongst those in the drug policy world and beyond. Rest in Peace you kind and compassionate man.
Photo credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/7424534.stm
For as long as I have been involved in thinking and writing about drug issues there was always Kenny Simpson. His was a voice from the Police that spoke knowledgeably about drugs from a perspective that went far beyond enforcement. Our field of study, policy and provision is too often characterised by division, discord, and personal attacks on those with whom we disagree as if “we” can see the right answer and “they” are driven by malign intent. Kenny could not have been further from that view. In his manner and in his words he sought to build bridges between people. He was respectful of others and he was compassionate. He understood the harms that characterise Scotland’s drugs problem but he never attacked the user. He sought improvement and change in how we respond to the drugs issue. I never once heard him espouse a case for legalisation and I never once heard him espouse a case for tougher enforcement. I suspect what he wanted more than anything else was to see a reduction in the harms that drugs cause to individuals, to families, to communities, and to our society. Those are noble goals and there is not one of us who should not share in that view.
Neil McKeganey Ph.D. FRSA
Centre for Substance Use Research