Scottish reforms to decriminalise personal drug use knocked down within an hour

Scottish drugs minister Elena Whitham said ‘criminalisation increases the harms people experience. Criminalisation kills’.

Craig Paton
Friday 07 July 2023 15:21 BST
The Scottish Government wants to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use in a bid to tackle the country’s death death crisis (PA)
The Scottish Government wants to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use in a bid to tackle the country’s death death crisis (PA) (PA Archive)

Radical drug reforms proposed by the Scottish Government – including decriminalisation of possession for personal use – were knocked down by Westminster within an hour of being announced.

Scottish drugs minister Elena Whitham announced on Friday a shift in her Government’s position on personal use, as well as a framework for the creation of drug consumption rooms and the consideration of implementing the regulated supply of drugs.

A policy paper produced by the Scottish Government said decriminalisation would free “individuals from the fear of accessing treatment and support, reducing drug-related harms and, ultimately, improving lives”.

Drug laws remain reserved to Westminster, and the Scottish Government has engaged in repeated battles with the UK Government in recent years as it tries to stem the tide of Western Europe’s highest drug deaths.

In the final paragraph of the paper, Ms Whitham says that while “independence or further devolution” would allow the policies to be implemented, “these changes are not dependent on constitutional changes”.

She added: “We stand ready to engage with the UK Government on meaningful drug law reform to improve the lives of people who use drugs, their families and our communities.”

But within an hour of the end of the press conference, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman poured cold water on the proposals.

The spokesman said: “Whilst I haven’t seen those reports, I think I’m confident enough to say that there are no plans to alter our tough stance on drugs.”

Later, a source close to Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “Illegal drugs destroy lives and communities.

“The Scottish National Party’s proposals are irresponsible and would do untold damage to our neighbourhoods.

“This Government’s focus is on protecting people and preventing lives from being ruined – we’ve absolutely no intention of decriminalising illegal drug use.”

The issue is yet another example of the differences in policy north and south of the border, with both governments engaging in repeated constitutional spats over independence, gender reforms and the deposit return scheme in the past year.

The shift in drug policy was also ruled out by Labour, with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves telling journalists during a visit to Scotland on Friday: “The short answer is no.

“I don’t think this sounds like a good policy.

“I find it quite stunning that this would be a priority for the Scottish Government when we’re here today talking about the Tory mortgage bombshell and what we would do to address that.

“We’re here meeting people training to do jobs in the industries of the future.

“We’ve got more than 700,000 people in Scotland on NHS waiting lists – pick an issue.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said drug deaths are three times as high in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK despite the same drug laws, while Ms Reeves added it is not a “constitutional issue”.

But Ms Whitham, speaking in Edinburgh flanked by drug reform advocates Helen Clark and Ruth Dreifuss – the former premiers of New Zealand and Switzerland, respectively – said the proposed changes are a “momentous step forward”.

Asked how the UK Government would react when previous calls have been met with refusal, the minister said: “Drug deaths are rising across the rest of the UK as well.

“We’re actually facing down the barrel of a storm in terms of synthetic opioids and new and novel street benzodiazepines that are heading to our shores at the moment.

“If we are not prepared for that arriving here, with 21st century drug laws in place, I’m terrified as to what that could look like.

“So again, I would ask the United Kingdom Government to work constructively with the Scottish Government so that we can realise these proposals which, although may sound radical, are actually tried and tested.”

Criminalisation increases the harms people experience. Criminalisation kills

Elena Whitham, Scottish drugs minister

Later in the press conference, Ms Whitham said there have been “many conversations” between the two governments on the issue, but she added: “Most recently, the noises we have heard have not been as positive as we would like, but you can hear some changes afoot.”

Ms Clark, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and former prime minister of New Zealand, said she is unclear why drug policy is not a devolved matter, when issues of justice and health are.

“What is interesting to me is that while justice generally is a devolved competency for the Scottish Government, this area of drug policy has not been,” she said.

“As the minister said, the ultimate answer is for the UK as a whole to change its position of not devolving this area, which I cannot see any rational reason for carving out from the justice and health portfolio areas.”

Announcing the proposals, Ms Whitham said the “war on drugs has failed”.

She added: “That’s a fact. I don’t think we can dispute that.

“Our current drug law does not stop people from using drugs, it does not stop people from experiencing the harm associated and, critically, it does not stop people from dying.

“In fact, I would say today here, that criminalisation increases the harms people experience. Criminalisation kills.”

A joint statement from 10 leading drugs charities welcomed the report, but said the Scottish Government must implement the drug consumption rooms and drug testing facilities “as a matter of urgency”.

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