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by Staff reporter
07 July 2023
Decriminalise drugs for personal use, says Scottish Government

Elena Whitham

Decriminalise drugs for personal use, says Scottish Government

The Scottish Government has called on the UK Government to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use in a paper that outlines its vision for a “caring, compassionate and human rights informed drug policy.”

Drugs policy is currently reserved to Westminster and in the paper drugs policy minister Elena Whitham notes that the Scottish Government is “doing all we can […] to improve and save lives” by using the powers that are currently devolved.

That includes, she said, investing £250m over the lifetime of the current parliament to “ensure treatment and support is available at the point of need across all parts of Scotland and to get more people into the life‑saving and life‑changing treatment that is right for them”.

It is part of a so-called National Mission designed to cut the persistently high level of drug deaths seen in the country, with Scotland continuing to record the highest per-capita death rate of any country in Europe.

Last month, it was revealed that there were 298 drug-related deaths in the first three months of this year, up five per cent on the same period last year and the worst quaterly figure in almost two years.

It comes after annual figures published in February suggested the rate of deaths might have peaked, with National Records of Scotland data showing that from a record high of 1,339 in 2020 the number of drug deaths fell to 1,330 in 2021, the first drop since 2013.  

To address the issue the Scottish Government wants to be able to treat and support anyone found in possession of drugs rather than criminalise them, with the paper laying out three ways in which that could be achieved: further devolution, independence or a change to UK laws.

“The legislative powers to achieve this are not currently devolved to Scotland, but there are different routes to delivering the changes we call for,” the paper states.

“They could be implemented by the Scottish Government through a Section 30 order and the devolution of specific powers to Holyrood, including the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or through wider constitutional changes such as Scottish independence.

“The simplest and quickest way for these policies to be enacted, however, would be for the UK Government to use its existing powers to change its drug laws.

“Scotland needs a progressive policy to help tackle our drug deaths crisis, like many countries around the world are adopting in order to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

“To be quite clear, this is not in any way incompatible with an ambition to tackle organised criminals who profit from the misery of our communities.”

Following recommendations made by its Drug Deaths Taskforce in September 2021, the Scottish Government wants the possession of all drugs for personal supply to be decriminalised as well as changes to the law to allow safe-consumption spaces to be created.

Whitham said the proposals are “grounded in evidence, that will help save lives”.

“We want to create a society where problematic drug use is treated as a health, not a criminal matter, reducing stigma and discrimination and enabling the person to recover and contribute positively to society,” she said.

“While we know these proposals will spark debate, they are in line with our public health approach and would further our national mission to improve and save lives.

“We are working hard within the powers we have to reduce drug deaths, and while there is more we need to do, our approach is simply at odds with the Westminster legislation we must operate within.

“These policies could be implemented by the Scottish Government through the devolution of further, specific powers to Holyrood including the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – or through independence. An immediate way for these policies to be enacted would be for the UK Government to use its existing powers to change its drug laws.

“Scotland needs a caring, compassionate and human rights informed drugs policy, with public health and the reduction of harm as its underlying principles, and we are ready to work with the UK Government to put into practice this progressive policy.”

Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser accused the government of being both "irresponsible" and "cynical" in a post on Twitter. 

He said: "The call from the SNP to decriminalise drugs is not just irresponsible - greenlighting drug use to the young as acceptable behaviour - but a deeply cynical attempt to create a constitutional diversion away from this Govt’s shameful record on drug deaths - worst in Europe."

His colleague Russell Findlay, the Scottish Conservatives' shadow justice secretary, called the proposals "reckless".

"It is madness to try and solve Scotland's drug death crisis, the worst in Europe, by essentially legalising heroin, crack and other class-A drugs," he said.

“This would put more drugs on our streets. It would put more lives at risk. What kind of message is the SNP sending to Scotland's drug-ravaged communities?

"These proposals are not radical, they are reckless.

"[First Minister] Humza Yousaf is disgracefully playing politics with people's lives and using his government’s drug deaths tragedy as the latest way of picking a fight with the UK government.

"Instead, he should back the Scottish Conservative Right to Recovery bill to tackle Scotland’s shameful record drug deaths.”

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