The impossibility of an adult conversation about drugs in Scotland

Everyone knows that Scotland has a serious problem with drugs. It’s sadly not at all uncommon to find discarded needles in the alleyways of Scotland’s cities and large towns, evidence of intravenous drug use by addicts who have no safe and clean place in which to get their fix. Sadly, Scotland has the highest rate of deaths from drug misuse in any developed nation. It should not take a genius to see a link between that tragic statistic and the discarded needles and syringes which litter our streets. Unfortunately drug policy in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, is not determined by geniuses, it is decided by the right wing moralistic knee jerkers of the Home Office, who shape drugs policy according to the prejudices of the Daily Mail and who live in terror of doing anything which the intolerant right can frame as “being soft on drugs.” Their only answer to the drugs crisis is to throw red meat to the press, sadly that red meat consists of the dead bodies of those who attempt to cope with the hopelessness and despair of modern Britain by self medicating on drugs.

Last week the Scottish Government published a paper which aired new and radical proposals to tackle Scotland’s drug problem. The core of this proposed policy would be to treat drug misuse as a health problem and to implement harm reduction strategies rather than to continue with the failing British policy of treating drug use as a matter for the criminal justice system. This policy has clearly not succeeded, either to stem the supply of drugs, or to reduce the number of users or the number of those dying as a result of drug use or developing serious health issues as a consequence of their drug use. It is a policy which does absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people fall into addiction in the first place.

Central to the proposals was the idea of decriminalising the personal possession of drugs in order to facilitate harm reduction measures such as safe consumption rooms, where people with drugs issues can ensure that their drugs are not contaminated by toxic substances which could kill them – an all too common occurrence with black market drugs – and can inject the drugs in a safe, clean, and hygienic setting under medical supervision.

Tentative attempts were made to introduce safe consumption rooms in Scotland previously, but these were quickly shut down by the Home Office which was more concerned to maintain its macho posturing on drug use than to allow the implementation of a measure with proven results.

In 2017, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published Drug Consumption Rooms: An Overview of Provision and Evidence. Its summary of the results associated with supervised consumption sites includes – increased contact with health and social services, including substance use treatment services among marginalized clientele, decreased drug-related litter, decreased high-risk injection practice such as re-using or sharing injection equipment), and decreased injection in public.

Studies have not found any association of supervised consumption sites with increased criminal activity or with increased initiation, or frequency of drug use. So these facilities absolutely do not encourage people to use drugs, contrary to the claims of certain Conservatives. In August 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected drug consumption rooms in Scotland as a potential solution to Scotland’s record number of drug-related deaths, saying that he was “instinctively” opposed to drug consumption rooms and was “not in favour of encouraging people to take more drugs.”

Portugal, which was a pioneer in drug decriminalisation found that decriminalising the personal possession of drugs and introducing a raft of support and welfare care measures for drug users had a marked effect in both reducing the number of deaths from drug misuse and in reducing the number of people who were imprisoned for drugs related offences.

Decriminalisation is absolutely not the same thing as legalisation. Decriminalising drugs for personal use means that the possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use would remain illegal, and as such subject to confiscation by the police, but it would no longer be prosecuted and attract fines or jail time unless the offence was repeated and the person had no interest in taking steps to tackle their drug problem. What it does mean is that people with a drugs problem are not invariably treated as criminals but as people with health and social problems.

Naturally the proposal was greeted with howls of outrage from the Conservative and Labour parties and from the usual suspects for whom any policy is automatically a bad policy if it comes from the SNP or the Scottish Government. There was a chorus of outrage from the anti-independence press which blames all that is ill in Scotland on the SNP and credits Westminster with all that is good. So naturally Scotland’s woeful record on drugs deaths can’t possibly have anything to do with the drugs policy which is reserved to Westminster and its moralistic just say no war on drugs which is manifestly failing.

The Scottish Tories immediately went on the offensive, although to be honest they are always offensive, with Douglas Ross angrily saying: “This is reckless, dangerous and naive. Legalising class-A drugs will not help tackle the SNP’s drug death crisis.” That statement contains two flat out lies. Absolutely no one in the Scottish Government is proposing to legalise class-A drugs, and Douglas Ross most certainly knows that too. If he genuinely doesn’t understand the difference between decriminalisation and harm reduction strategies and legalisation and making drugs freely available then he has no business at all passing comment on drugs policy. But Douglas Ross is not stupid or naive, he’s reckless, dangerous and deeply deeply cynical. Ross does not want an adult and grown up conversation about drugs, he’s only interested in cheap political point scoring.

The Conservative Government immediately rejected any suggestion that UK drugs laws should be changed or that the Scottish Parliament should be given the power to formulate drugs policy.

Scotland cannot have a grown up and adult conversation about drugs just as it cannot have a grown up conversation about its own future. Westminster will not allow it. As a part of the UK Scotland must be kept infantilised and dependent.


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