A grown up conversation about drug use in Scotland

Lorna Slater,the co-leader of the Scottish Greens last week sparked off a bout of puritan pearl clutching from the usual Scottish Conservative suspects when she tried to make a perfectly sensible and grown up point about recreational drug use. Speaking on the Unitribal podcast the Green co-leader and minister remarked that recreational drugs are not “inherently dangerous” in and of themselves. However she added that drugs become dangerous because then users cannot get them safely and drug dealers operating illegally are incentivised to sell dangerous and adulterated product in order to maximise their profits as quickly as possible. It ought to be obvious that quality control does not figure high on the list of priorities of the criminal gangs who control the drug trade.

Naturally this sensible and adult contribution to the conversation about drug use provoked predictable outrage from right wing politicians and commentators who have zero concern for working class communities where there is an epidemic of drug use and who equally predictably refrained from the same paroxysms of condemnation when it came to the admitted use of Class A drugs by the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson, or Michael Gove. Murdo Fraser said that the Green co-leader was an embarrassment, and to be fair Murdo knows a lot about being an embarrassment to the extent that his name has become synonymous with politicians making arses of themselves in public. “There’s been a Murdo” has become a shorthand phrase to telegraph that the Scottish Tory MSP has yet again embarrassed himself and his party on social media. Impressively Murdo has managed to achieve this entirely without the use of mind bending drugs. His mind goes to a bizarre alternative reality with no need of any chemical assistance to get there.

The Green co-leader is in favour of decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use. A few points of clarification are necessary here. Decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. It does not mean that you’d be able to go into a shop and buy two ounces of cannabis and baggie of cocaine. The possession of drugs for personal use would remain unlawful, however the difference with decriminalisation is that the possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use would become an offence without a criminal penalty.

Possession with intent to supply would remain an offence which is prosecuted, just as it is at the moment. The idea behind decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use is that drug use ought to be treated as a health issue not a criminal one, it doesn’t help a person struggling with a drug habit to enmesh them in the criminal justice system, it merely adds to the personal problems which drove them to inappropriate drug use in the first place, and compounds them by giving them a criminal record which makes it even harder for them to get a decent job and escape the criminal milieu of the illegal drug scene.

However when you are a politician in Scotland who attempts to initiate a serious and adult conversation about Scotland’s problematic record with drug use and the appalling number of deaths due to drugs in this country in the hope of finding a solution which works, because it ought to be self-evident that the current punitive policy of blanket criminalisation is failing badly, you immediately run into the hysterical opposition of those whose understanding of drug policy remains locked in the Just Say No or Go to Jail nostrums of the 1980s, a strategy which has not prevented an epidemic of drug use and a truly dreadful annual death toll. And for every soul added to the terrible toll of drug deaths there are dozens more eking out lives of despair and desperation on the margins, spending their days doing what they can, whether legal or illegal, to scrape together the cash to get them a hit which will get them through the night, until one day their lifeless body is found in the dingy close where they went to shoot up their last. It’s no way to live, and it’s no way to die.

Criminalisation makes drugs far more dangerous, it encourages criminal gangs to adulterate their product with dangerous substances in order to bulk up volume and weight. The gangs have no concern that these substances might be extremely dangerous when ingested or injected.

It’s not just Lorna Slater who believes that the current war on drugs is failing to prevent or reduce the use of recreational drugs, and failing to prevent far too many people in Scotland from dying before their time. In addition it is failing to prevent organised criminal gangs from becoming established in Scottish communities. The only winners here are the right wing politicians who like to pose as being tough on crime. Today the next Moderator of the Church of Scotland also spoke out, saying that, like Lorna Slater, he believes that the personal possession of drugs should be decriminalised and the issue of drugs treated as a public health problem not a criminal justice matter. The Rev. Iain Greenshields said that locking up people who are often “self-medicating” to cope with psychological challenges did not work and instead they should be treated in high-quality residential rehabilitation centres.

We can see whether Murdo Fraser also decries the Moderator of the Kirk as an embarrassment in an effort to depict him as a dangerous radical with dangerous views beyond the pale of decent society. Right wing British nationalists resorted to this tactic as part of their efforts to demonise and marginalise support for Scottish independence. They have no real interest in what really works to reduce the damage caused by drug use. Their attacks are hypocritical and self-serving. In doing so they merely contribute to th infantilisation of Scottish public discourse which is Anglo-British nationalism utilises as one of its methods of control.

With drug policy reserved to a Westminster which has no interest in increasing the powers of Holyrood,sadly there’s little prospect of the change in direction in drug policy which Scotland so badly needs until Scotland recovers the full powers of an independent state. Until then we will remain subject to Tory politicians trying to look tough on crime as they build their profiles on a mounting toll of deaths, broken lives, and shattered families.

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