The Scottish government last week called for decriminalizing possession of personal quantities of drugs in a bid to address the alarming rate of overdose deaths in the country, which is among the highest in Europe. In a policy proposal, the semi-autonomous Edinburgh government, led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, said that eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession would “allow for the provision of safe, evidence-based harm reduction services.”
“The war on drugs has failed,” Scottish drugs minister Elena Whitham said at a news conference alongside fellow drug policy reform advocates Helen Clark, the former New Zealand Prime Minister, and ex-Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss.
“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,” Whitham added. “In fact, I would say today here, that criminalization increases the harms people experience. Criminalization kills.”
Europe’s Highest Overdose Death Rate
The death rate from drug overdoses in Scotland is three times the rate for the United Kingdom as a whole and the highest in Western Europe. Last year, there were 1,330 fatal drug overdoses in Scotland, a country of only 5.5 million people, according to government figures cited by the Associated Press.
“Every single drug death is a tragedy, behind each statistic is a grieving family and community,” the Scottish government wrote in a policy paper published on Friday. “The scale of the drug deaths emergency in Scotland requires us to use every lever at our disposal, and we are clear that our actions to resolve this crisis must be comprehensive. This government’s position has consistently been that tackling the drugs emergency requires a concerted and radical public health approach.”
The Scottish government cited the drug policy in Portugal, where criminal penalties were eliminated in 2001 in favor of health-focused reforms that focus on drug treatment for those experiencing problematic use. The Scottish government said a similar decriminalization plan would free “individuals from the fear of accessing treatment and support, reducing drug-related harms and, ultimately, improving lives.”
Whitman also said that the government would like to see the law changed to allow for the establishment of supervised drug consumption sites, which have been shown to save lives and encourage those with substance misuse disorders to seek help. Other proposals include introducing a regulated supply of drugs to promote consistency and safety.
Whitman said that without a radical change in drug policy, the situation would continue to worsen, adding that Scotland was “facing down the barrel of a storm in terms of synthetic opioids and new and novel street benzodiazepines that are heading to our shores.”
“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,” she said.
U.K. Government Quickly Nixes Decriminalization Bid
But the drug decriminalization proposal is opposed by conservatives in both Scotland and the U.K. national government. Current policy in Scotland allows those caught possessing drugs to be released with a police warning, but full decriminalization would require the approval of the U.K.’s conservative government in London. Max Blain, spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, said that approval would not come.
“There are no plans to alter our tough stance on drugs,” he said.
“Illegal drugs destroy lives and devastate communities. We are committed to preventing drug use by supporting people through treatment and recovery and tackling the supply of illegal drugs, as set out in our 10-year drugs strategy,” the U.K. Home Office wrote in a statement after Scotland’s decriminalization plan was proposed. “We have no plans to decriminalise drugs given the associated harms, including the risks posed by organised criminals, who will use any opportunity to operate an exploitative and violent business model.”
Russell Findlay, justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservative Party, said “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. This would put more drugs on our streets. It would put more lives at risk.”