MPs Back Decriminalisation of Illicit Drug Possession for Personal Use
Scotland is gripped by the most devastating drug epidemic in Europe, an unprecedented situation that the Scottish Government calls “an emergency””.
Joe FitzPatrick, Scotland’s Minister for Public Health, Sport, and Wellbeing and Dundee MSP recently vowed to take bold and innovative measures in order to properly address this drug crisis, which must be treated as a “public health issue”.
The Scottish government’s proactive approach is focused on preventing the loss of further life due to drug use.
Decriminalising the possession of illicit drugs for personal use is among the measures proposed by the cross-party committee of MPs chaired by Pete Wishart, the longest-serving SNP MP.
Official Figures: Scotland’s Drug-Related Death Rate Is The Highest in the EU
According to the National Records of Scotland statistics ( broken down by cause of death, drugs reported, sex, and age) the number of drug-related deaths registered in Scotland in 2018 rose to 1,187 (up 27% on 2017 and more than double the figure ten years ago), the largest number since the statistics series began in 1996.
This represents the worst death-related mortality rate in Europe.
In the Scottish Borders, the number of drug-related fatalities increased from 13 in 2017 to 22 in 2018, while in Dumfries & Galloway, the number of drug deaths saw a decrease from 22 in 2017 to 20 in 2018.
Opioids/opiates and benzodiazepines ( most of them illicitly acquired) are killing more people in Scotland than in any other European country.
Opiates/opioids such as heroin, methadone, and morphine were involved in 1,021 fatalities, while benzodiazepines, such as the inexpensive yet deadly “street valiums” ( which are sold for 30p per pill) were found in the bloodstream of 792 Scots.
Men accounted for the vast majority of the drug-related fatalities, which involved more than one substance.
The 35-44-year-old and the 45-54-year-old age groups ( the fragile “Trainspotting generation”) were associated with the most drug deaths.
Scotland’s drug-related death rate ( 218 per million of the population) is nearly triple the rate of Britain as a whole.
Scotland has long had more heroin users than the rest of the UK, and waiting times to receive treatment are quite long, according to the Scottish Drugs Forum.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was the health board that saw the highest percentage of drug fatalities, 33% ( 394 deaths), followed by Tayside and Ayrshire & Arran.
MPs Urge Westminster to Change the Law and Adopt a Model Similar to Portugal
Amid Scotland’s worst drug crisis ever, the Scottish government criticises the UK Government’s current drug policy and calls for powers over drug misuse legislation to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish government’s approach consists of addressing the harms caused by illicit drug use as a public health issue and making the personal use of such drugs a civil matter rather than a criminal justice one.
The Home Office stated that decriminalising drug possession would not eradicate crime associated with illicit drug trafficking. The Home Office has no intention to implement decriminalisation of illicit drug use.
The Scottish National Party condemns Westminster’s drug policy as “not fit for purpose”.
The recommendations put forward in the House of Commons health and social care committee’s recent report propose a much-needed policy shift to prevent further drug-related fatalities.
MPs on the committee urge the UK Government to consider the model used in Portugal, where illicit drug decriminalisation has contributed to a significant drop in drug-related deaths.
Portugal decriminalised all drugs, including heroin and cocaine in 2001 and, according to the most recent data from the National Records of Scotland, the number of drug-related fatalities per capita in Portugal is the second-lowest in the EU ( the lowest being the number of drug deaths in Romania; no data available for Greece).
Tory ministers have displayed “chilling indifference” toward the public health emergency in Scotland, according to SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, who also stresses that it is absolutely vital to stop treating vulnerable people as criminals while continuing to target drug dealers.
Dr Emily Finch, vice-chairman of the addiction faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists lends her support to the committee’s report and its demands for a reversal of budget cuts to specialised drug treatment services and additional investment in supervised drug consumption facilities.
The Importance of Drug Decriminalisation
The cross-party committee of 12 Scottish MPs (3 Labour MPs, 4 Conservative MPs, 2 Liberal Democrat MPs, 2 other SNP MPs and chaired by SNP MP Pete Wishart) gathered evidence in both Canada and Portugal and conducted one of the most in-depth inquires into drug misuse in a bid to tackle the deadliest drug crisis in Scotland.
SNP MP Pete Wishart considers the criminalisation of drugs as counter-productive, calling for a public health approach to substance abuse in Scotland that could dramatically reduce the stigma associated with problem drug use.
In mid-October, the SNP members voted unanimously the urgent reform of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would allow for the decriminalisation of consumption and possession of controlled drugs.
According to SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, law enforcement agencies should exclusively focus on the organised criminals at the top of the pyramid, instead of on the vulnerable and fragile at the bottom.
Drug decriminalisation changes the mindset and demystifies drugs, said drug reform advocate Ronnie Cowan MP, ultimately encouraging vulnerable people to seek treatment.
The Importance of Supervised Drug Consumption Facilities or “Fix Rooms”
Glasgow City Council’s 2016 proposal to introduce a safe drug consumption facility in the city centre, which would be the first of its kind in Britain has been blocked under drug misuse legislation reserved to Westminster.
The committee’s recommendations also include changes in the current drug policy that would allow drug users to inject drugs in a clean and safe environment, under medical supervision in so-called “fix rooms””.
Although these are not a “silver bullet” for drug misuse, evidence suggests that they can effectively counter the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases associated with needle sharing, and encourage drug users into treatment, according to the committee report.
The report also said that if Westminster continues to refuse to implement this vital change in policy, the powers over drug misuse legislation must be devolved to Holyrood.