Academics and SNP figures say drug decriminalisation could help Scotland reduce deaths

Following increased drug deaths in Scotland, experts say change is needed

INDEPENDENT drug policy experts have echoed sentiments of Ronnie Cowan MP and former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill this week on the need for an overhaul of drug policy.

Official statistics published this week revealed an increase of drug related deaths in Scotland by 23 per cent since 2015. The figure – 867 deaths in 2016 – stands at more than double the UK as a whole. Over 30 per cent of these were in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and 88 per cent involved heroin or opioids.

The figures have led to renewed calls for a major shift in drug policy, with former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill writing in Holyrood magazine on Thursday to urge the Scottish Government to push for devolution of drug law powers and move towards decriminalisation.

“It’s time for the Scottish Government to be radical in action and bold in demands,” MacAskill said.

“The policy is failing a group of high risk patients; a vulnerable, disenfranchised group of people.” Professor Roy Robertson

SNP MP Ronnie Cowan, who has spoken out on a number of occasions in favour of drug decriminalisation, reiterated his position in the Daily Record yesterday in light of Scotland’s high rate of drug deaths.

Both MacAskill and Cowan have cited proposed injection rooms for addicts in Glasgow as a step in the right direction, and criticised the UK Government’s policy of a “war on drugs”.

The legal classification of drugs is a reserved issue, so while the Scottish Government sets the policy for how addiction and drug use are approached in Scotland, the power to decriminalise or legalise drugs lies with the UK Government. 

READ MORE: Ronnie Cowan MP: Why we should at least consider decriminalising drug use in the UK

Roy Robertson, chair of the Scottish Government’s advisory group on drug related harm and professor of addiction medicine at the University of Edinburgh, told CommonSpace that a move towards a harm reduction approach to drug use is vital.

Robertson explained that it is not realistic to expect all drug users to “recover”, and that ways to keep those using drugs as safe and healthy as possible must be considered.

Referring to the Scottish Government strategy ‘The Road to Recovery’, Robertson said: “There is a sector that can be supported through recovery but the policy is failing a group of high risk patients; a vulnerable, disenfranchised group of people.”

For these people, Robertson suggests that a disease management model is more appropriate, which keeps people in on-going treatment for their addiction. “The NHS is encouraged to get people out of treatment, in a perverse sort of way,” Robertson said.

“There is a huge need to decriminalise or change the law on drugs and reduce the number of people in prisons.” Professor Roy Robertson

“There is no financial advantage to keeping people in treatment,” he added, but said this is the only option for a significant number of people.

The Scottish Government is currently reviewing its drug policy and is moving towards an approach which treats drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one. Robertson described this as a “huge triumph” but said it will require “radical thinking”.

He added that while decriminalisation may not substantially reduce the number of people with addictions, “the criminal nature of drug use is a difficult issue for professionals working with drug users. There is a huge need to decriminalise or change the law on drugs and reduce the number of people in prisons. But I really doubt the minister is prepared to go there,” he said. 

Speaking to CommonSpace, senior lecturer in alcohol and drugs studies at the University of the West of Scotland Ken Barrie noted that problem drug users often have a range of complex health issues resulting from deprivation and poverty.

Barrie referred to the Glasgow injection rooms as an approach which “might have an impact” on drug deaths among vulnerable groups.

“I think some liberalisation of drug laws is required, although it’s not clear if that would substantially decrease the number of drug related deaths.” Ken Barrie, University of the West of Scotland. 

“I think some liberalisation of drug laws is required, although it’s not clear if that would substantially decrease the number of drug related deaths,” Barrie said. The next important step, Barrie suggested, is to “get a clearer look at the vulnerable population and how best to engage with them”.

The Scottish Government did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publishing. The SNP membership is set to debate a drug policy resolution at the party conference in October, which will consider the need to treat substance misuse as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one in order to better support communities and families. 

In a 2015 article in The National, a Scottish Government spokesperson was quoted as saying: “The classification of drugs is reserved to Westminster – however, should we gain responsibility for the issue, we have no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. The medicinal use of drugs is a separate issue.”

Picture courtesy of Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

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Comments

Fiona McOwan

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 21:57

It must surely be worth trying a monitored pilot study in an area of Glasgow as under the 'War on Drugs' policy we are clearly not winning.

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