Drugs minister ‘terrified’ of potential impact of failure to reform policy

Downing Street re-committed to its ‘tough’ stance on drugs as the Scottish Government called for decriminalisation of personal use.

Scotland’s drugs minister has said she is “terrified” of the impact a lack of reform could have on the number of deaths as the Scottish Government called for personal use to be decriminalised.

On Friday, Elena Whitham announced a shift in the Scottish Government 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 Government said decriminalisation would free “individuals from the fear of accessing treatment and support, reducing drug-related harms and, ultimately, improving lives”.

However, drugs laws remain devolved to Westminster, with the Scottish Government having 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.

Elena Whitham
The minister made the announcement in Edinburgh on Friday (Jane Barlow/PA)

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

“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.”

Speaking at a press conference in Edinburgh flanked by Helen Clark and Ruth Dreifuss – former premiers of New Zealand and Switzerland, respectively, turned drug reform advocates – the minister said the changes were a “momentous step forward”.

But 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, but are actually tried and tested.”

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

Within an hour of the press conference finishing, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman poured cold water on the proposals.

“No. 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,” he said.

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 was also ruled out by Labour – who look set to take the keys to Downing Street at the next election – with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves telling journalists during a visit to Scotland: “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 drugs laws, while Ms Reeves added that it was not a “constitutional issue”.

Helen Clark, the chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and former prime minister of New Zealand, said at the event she was unclear why drug policy was not a devolved matter, when issues of justice and health were.

“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.

“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 added that the “war on drugs has failed”.

“That’s a fact. I don’t think we can dispute that,” she said.

“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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