Lord Advocate 'simply cannot' approve safe injecting rooms without drug law reform
A change in drug laws would have to take place before safe consumption rooms could be introduced, Scotland’s top legal officer has said.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, told the Scottish Affairs Committee on Tuesday that while he does have the power to instruct police not to refer people caught with illegal drugs for criminal proceedings, this alone would not lead to giving consumption rooms the green light.
He stood by his 2017 decision to block plans for a facility in Glasgow that would allow users to take drugs under supervision and insisted that a change of the Misuse of Drugs Act was necessary before he would consider signing off on one in future.
He said that his decision was based on “practical reasons as well as reasons of constitutional principle” and said that without significant changes to the law, he “simply cannot” approve such facilities.
Committee members asked the Lord Advocate his view on a range of issues including “de-facto decriminalisation” and whether drug law should be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood.
He told the committee that it did not matter to him where the legislation was altered from.
He said: “The introduction of such a facility would require a legislative framework that would allow for a democratically accountable consideration of the policy issues that arise and would establish an appropriate legal regime for its operation.”
The leading lawyer did confirm, however, that he could instruct police officers to let people caught with drugs go without charge by using discretionary powers such as employing “recorded police warnings” and “diversions” instead of arrests.
“In the reporting of crime, police are obliged to act within my direction… these are matters that are entirely for me”, he said.
He did stop short of recommending such a course of action across the board, however.
The Scottish Greens welcomed this revelation and urged the Scottish Government and Crown Office to move towards a process of decriminalisation on these grounds.
Justice spokesperson for the party, John Finnie, said: “When it comes to drugs, criminalisation has caused more harm than it can claim to have prevented. The ‘war on drugs’ approach has self-evidently failed.
“Addiction is better tackled by trained medical professionals, not with the strong arm of the law, and dangerous substances need to be taken out of the hands of gangsters.”
The committee also heard from Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe Fitzpatrick MSP, as part of the committee’s inquiry into drug-related deaths in Scotland.
The oral evidence session was held as new figures due to be released are expected to show the number of people who have died as a result of drugs will top 1,000 since last year.
Such a high number of deaths would make Scotland the country with the highest number of drug deaths per capita in the world.
The Scottish Government announced last week that Professor Catriona Matheson would be the person to head up a new taskforce to look into the underlying causes and possible policy solutions to Scotland’s drug death crisis.
Fitzpatrick told the committee: “Next week we expect the figures from last year to show that over 1000 people have died in Scotland. This is an emergency and we need to act.”