LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 23TH AUGUST 2013

Lima Airport where Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum were stopped by police

The case of Melissa Reid has troubled us all. Is she an innocent abroad or a drug smuggler? And in either case, is she being treated fairly and humanely?

Video footage released by police in Peru shows Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum being questioned about alleged drug trafficking
Video footage released by police in Peru shows Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum being questioned about alleged drug trafficking
Melissa, aged 20 from Lenzie, near Glasgow, and her friend Michaella McCollum aged 21 from Northern Ireland, were arrested two weeks ago at Lima airport in Peru after cocaine worth £1.5m was found in their luggage. The girls say they were forced by drug gangsters to fly to Peru from their holiday jobs in Ibiza in Spain to act as drug “mules”.

The pictures we have seen of the girls in police interviews make them look like rabbits caught in the headlights. At first they claimed they did not know there were drugs in the food packages they were carrying in their luggage. This seems unlikely. They then said the armed gangsters from Colombia had threatened them and their families with death or injury if they did not go through with their mission. This was the reason they gave for not seeking help from the police in Spain or the airport officials in Peru.

Police in Peru are fighting a war against drug gangs
Police in Peru are fighting a war against drug gangs
This may or may not be true. The alternative suspicion is that they were offered money. But it looks like we will have to wait a long time to find out. They have already spent a fortnight in police cells – on hard, dirty floors with little food, according to their lawyer – before their first court appearance. And apparently they will now spend many months, some say two or three years, in jail awaiting trial.

Guilty or not guilty this is a pretty tough “sentence” for a 20 year old and we have got to feel some sympathy for her. But, on the other hand, the drugs trade is a pretty tough business. Countries like Peru, Colombia and Mexico are plagued by drug gangs terrorising the population and making a mockery of the police. Peru has recently overtaken Colombia as the biggest producer of cocaine and there are currently over 1600 foreigners in jail for drug smuggling, 37 of them British. Jail sentences are severe, the girls face up to 15 years behind bars.

There are those who argue that the drug trade should be decriminalised and brought into the fold, controlled and taxed like alcohol. But heroin and cocaine are much more addictive than the old demon drink. There are some 60,000 drug addicts in Scotland and a serious crime wave is only being held back by the controversial methadone programme. A report out this week from the official commission on our anti-drugs strategy says more effort needs to be made to reduce the time people are “parked” on the methadone programme and more attention should be paid to the link between drug addiction and poverty.

Scots are still drinking too much
Scots are still drinking too much
Having mentioned alcohol in passing, I noticed an NHS report this week which again highlighted how much Scots are drinking – a fifth more than the rest of Britain. Overall sales of alcohol are down 3 per cent on last year, because of the recession, but on average men are still drinking right up to the maximum recommended amount of 21 units per week and women are exceeding their maximum. Two thirds of it is cheap alcohol, less than 50p a unit. Our national spirit is vodka not whisky. It makes it all the more puzzling why the Scotch Whisky Association is fighting a court battle again the government’s plan to bring in a minimum price of 50p.

And while on the subject of national disgraces, the Scottish Parliament has thrown up another one. The MSP Bill Walker has just been convicted on 23 charges of assault against his three former wives and one of his stepdaughters. The Sheriff in the case said the evidence, over a long period, showed him to be “controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling towards his former wives and also untrustworthy, disloyal and unfaithful.” Walker, aged 71 from Alloa, will be sentenced next month. Meanwhile, questions are being asked how the SNP ever came to select him as a candidate.

Is there any good news from Scotland this week, I hear you ask. Well, North Sea oil investment is up – it passed the £20bn mark last year – even though production levels are still falling. And the sea eagles are back along the east coast, for the first time in 200 years. The reintroduction programme begun four years ago has been celebrating its first chick.

And finally the Festival Fringe has chosen its top joke. It’s come from Rob Auton of York: “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.” Pathetic eh? Maybe that’s why I find stand-up comedy not funny at all.