Scotland proposes drug decriminalisation. 

Liz Filmer
12 Jul 2023

The Scottish government is calling on Westminster to consider decriminalising all drugs for personal use. The reason? Tackling Scotland's worryingly high drug death rates.

In a new reform paper, Elena Whitham, Scotland's drugs and alcohol policy minister, labelled the recommendations as being "ambitious, radical and grounded in evidence, that will help save lives".

 However, Downing Street instantly disregarded the Scottish government's ideas to revamp or devolve current drug legislation. The prime minister's official spokesperson declared that Rishi Sunak had no plans to change his "tough stance" on drugs.
Labour also poured failed to back the proposals, saying that any future Labour government would not decriminalise drug supply or possession.

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, commented that Scotland worked by the same drug misuse laws as the rest of the UK, yet the drug death figures were three times higher.

"It's the Scottish government's cuts to alcohol and drug health partnerships; it's their cuts to rehabilitation beds. It's the failure to invest in mental health services properly," 

In defence of her radical plans, Whitham pointed out that decriminalisation was "no longer a novel approach" but was being used "across the world and works well".

 "If you push people using drugs to the margins, bad things happen to people. Allow people to have all the information they need, based firmly on a harm reduction model. People are going to come to less serious harm."
She also pointed out that the UK's current drug legislation is 50 years old: "We need a 21st-century framework to build around a public health approach."

 However, a source close to the home secretary said that. 

"Illegal drugs destroy lives and communities. The Scottish National Party's irresponsible proposals would damage our neighbourhoods. This government focuses on protecting people and preventing lives from being ruined – we've no intention of decriminalising illegal drug use."

 Scotland persists in having the highest drug death rate of any country in Europe and five times the rate in England. Campaigners criticised a "massive accountability gap" concerning the quality and availability of drug help services.

The proposals were due to be shown to Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, who made similar proposals two years ago in what was then called a de facto decriminalisation. Scottish police were allowed to caution individuals caught possessing Class A drugs rather than threatening them with prosecution. There is no current evaluation of that previous guidance, however.

 Other suggestions summarised in the new paper include immediate reform to allow Scotland to fully execute harm reduction steps such as managed drug consumption facilities, drug checking, and improved access to lifesaving drug naloxone to counter the consequences of opioids in the case of an overdose.

Whilst the essence of the proposals was received well by those working with addicts, the Scottish Drugs Forum chief executive, Kirsten Horsburgh, told reporters that the Scottish government "doesn't have to wait for permission in a public health emergency to make a change" and wants them to be more assertive about saving lives. Ms Horsburg has commented that Scotland could utilise its existing powers to deliver supervised drug consumption rooms and drug-checking services as a matter of urgency.

 "Progress has already been made in extending recorded warnings for drug possession, policing arrangements and the legal basis for injecting equipment provision services and its world-leading take-home naloxone programme." 

Liz Filmer