Comment: Opposition for opposition's sake won't address Scotland's drug-death emergency
Long lobbied for, and previously resisted, the new lord advocate’s announcement of a shift in drugs policy felt sudden and seismic.
From now on, Dorothy Bain QC said, individuals caught in possession of Class A drugs, including cocaine and heroin, could be issued with a police caution rather than being referred to prosecutors. Just as significantly, she revealed an increasing number of those referred to prosecutors were now being diverted into treatment and rehabilitation instead of going through the courts.
For years, the UK and Scottish governments have been in a stand-off over who is to blame for the country’s epidemic. The SNP has insisted it could not pursue the public health-led approach it favoured without changes to reserved legislation, while the Conservatives have opposed moves such as the introduction of safer drug consumption rooms. As they tussled, the grim toll rose. Our per capita drug death rate is now three and a half times higher than the rest of the UK.
Here, at last, was a break in the impasse; a willingness to follow the international evidence; to take control of our destiny and not defer to Westminster. The move marked a symbolic – and hopefully real – shift away from a criminal justice approach. It represented an acceptance that the War on Drugs was a chimera; that the way to bring down the death rate is not to punish users but to encourage them to engage in treatment services.
Predictably, the Tories did not see it that way. Murdo Fraser called it “effective decriminalisation” while the party’s justice spokesperson Jamie Greene said we should not dilute how seriously we treat possession of heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine. It was as if the decades-long discourse on drugs – the testimony from former users, the experience of countries like Portugal, the research presented by campaigners – had passed them by.
Their stance was also weirdly at odds with UK party policy. The truth is that, even as Boris Johnson has continued to use hardline rhetoric, his government has softened its position.
Indeed, it has poured millions into Project ADDER which combines targeted and tougher policing with enhanced treatment and recovery services. Tougher policing – so far, so Tory. But ADDER actually stands for Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery.
That second D – diversion (not so Tory) – is already being pursued by several English police forces.
In the West Midlands, those caught in possession of Class A drugs are not routinely prosecuted. Instead, they are offered a route into services via a charity called Cranstoun. It takes police minutes to set up the initial assessment meeting, freeing them up for more urgent duties. Depending on the nature of the drug use, the individual will then be offered an education programme, treatment or rehabilitation.
At first, it was feared the voluntary nature of the scheme would lead to low take-up, but there is an 88 per cent engagement rate. The West Midlands approach accepts relapses are a part of recovery so reoffenders continue to be exempt from prosecution so long as they have not stopped engaging.
Durham’s scheme allows deferred prosecution for offenders whose crimes are deemed to stem from addiction. If they complete a rehabilitation programme, they walk away without a criminal conviction. If not, they are prosecuted in the traditional way.
These initiatives reduce stigma and recognise the complex trauma at the root of addiction. And, the lack of a criminal record makes it easier for users to gain and keep jobs.
Kit Malthouse, UK minister for crime and policing, is very much in favour of ADDER. Indeed, he has criticised the SNP for not embracing it.
The Scottish Conservatives can’t have it both ways. Diversion schemes are either good or bad. They can’t be a boon down south, but a cop-out here. It is almost as if the party’s MSPs aren’t aware of what’s happening nationally.
A better line of attack might have been to point out that diversion only works if there are services to divert to. And the Scottish Government has a poor track record on that front. Over several years, it “took its eye off the ball”, cutting funding and ending up with fragmented provision.
This much we know, and it shouldn’t be forgotten. But opposition for opposition’s sake won’t save lives. If what we want is to halt the tide of deaths, we have to move forward. And with the appointment of a dedicated drugs minister, Angela Constance, that does seem to be what the SNP is finally doing.
Of course, it is too early to tell if its efforts will make an impact. The new Medical Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards – which include same-day prescription – are useful only if fully implemented. The £250m extra funding over five years, announced in January, will take some time to filter down.
But the lord advocate’s intervention is a statement of intent. And news that the number of diversions offered for single charge possession cases has risen from 57 in 2017-18 to 1,000 in 2020-21 backs this up.
No more blame-game. No more constitutional wrangling. No more sitting on our hands and waiting for independence.
One day, hopefully, the UK government will dump the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. But until then, there’s other work to be done. It would be good if all Scottish parties could roll their sleeves up and get on with it.