Last week Scotland said that they want out of the war on drugs. In a radical report – titled A Caring, Compassionate and Human Rights Informed Drug Policy for Scotland – the Scottish government called for the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use. They want the UK to reform drug laws or give them the power to do so.
The Scottish government no longer sees the point in arresting people suffering from drug addiction, hauling them in front of a judge and limiting their employment, travel and education opportunities. They would now like to see them “treated and supported rather than criminalised and excluded”. The Home Office, the Westminster department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, responded: “Illegal drugs destroy lives and devastate communities […] 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.”
Scotland’s sensible suggestion comes amid a full-on public health crisis there. Drug-related deaths have “increased substantially over the past few decades” the report explains. They reached 1,339 in 2020, according to the latest statistics, which is the highest since records began in 1996 (2021 saw a slight decrease by 1 per cent). No country in Europe currently has a higher drug death rate than Scotland. The situation has gotten so bad that it has “contributed to [a] fall in life expectancy”. In order to address this, the report argues, we need to treat drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
There’s also a very real danger that this public health crisis will get worse if the UK has a synthetic opioids crisis on the horizon, as some experts are predicting. The rest of the UK is facing a similar public health crisis, too, albeit slightly less severe than Scotland. If there was ever a sensible time to decriminalise (or better still, legalise, confiscating the trade from the criminal fraternity) it is now.
But rather than looking for ways to minimise the public health crisis like the Scottish government, the Home Office has gone the opposite way – they’re moving to make drugs more dangerous. In 2017, the Home Office also refused to support Scotland’s efforts to introduce drug consumption rooms, where users can consume drugs in a safer, controlled setting. They even won the right to suppress the findings of their own experts who argued that drugs should be decriminalised.
To reduce the harms of drugs, society needs to move away from the one-dimensional approach, criminalising people suffering from addiction. Addiction and the way it interacts and shapes society is much more nuanced than that. For society to start to recover from the war on drugs it needs to focus on many things beyond the substances themselves. Starting with root causes of addiction – things such as stigma, poverty, low social mobility, low employability, etc.
Poverty in particular appears to be a driving factor in Scotland’s current health crisis: “People in the 20 per cent most deprived areas were more than 15 times as likely to have a drug misuse death as those in the 20 per cent least deprived areas,” the recent report explains. “That ratio has widened over the past two decades.”
It’s sad that Scotland’s life expectancy has reduced when you consider all the evidence-based strategies mentioned in the report: decriminalise the possession of drugs, introduce supervised drug consumption facilities, have drug safety checking services, increase access to the life-saving drug naloxone (which can reverse opioid overdoses) and introduce heroin-assisted treatment (where people suffering from treatment-resistant addiction issues can be essentially given heroin in a controlled setting). The Conservative party and the current iteration of Labour – the two being sadly almost indistinguishable on the matter – are against these measures, instead opting to make drugs more dangerous by refusing to consider them. It’s a decision that will, undoubtedly, cost lives.