By David Barbour, SCSN Communications Officer
Last week, the Scottish Government published a new policy on tackling drug deaths and wider drug related harms in Scotland. These included proposals for safer drug consumption rooms, decriminalisation of possession and exploration of regulating drug markets.
Our role is to take an evidence-based approach to building safer communities in Scotland.
The international evidence is overwhelming that our current drug laws and the War on Drugs have failed on every metric by which they could be judged – whether on reducing deaths, improving health, reducing violence, reducing exploitation of vulnerable people etc.
Drug prohibition makes our communities more dangerous in a variety of ways.
It hands the control of drugs over to criminal gangs with no interest in the wellbeing of people who use drugs – meaning that drug users often have no idea what the drugs they use contain and are more vulnerable to poisoning & overdose.
Total prohibition of drugs means we hand over control of drug markets, worth hundreds of billions of pounds each year, to organised crime gangs and cartels. A recent report commissioned by the UK Government valued the UK illicit drug market at £9.4billion. That’s money freely surrendered to organised crime.
This drives violence in our communities as gangs fight for control of territory and local markets.
It results in the exploitation of vulnerable people to be used by county lines gangs and in ‘cuckooing’.
The vast revenues from the drug trade are used by criminal gangs to corrupt civil society, including democratic institutions and the police – including in the United Kingdom.
Organised Crime can reinvest profits made from the drug trade to diversify into other forms of crime, including human trafficking and cybercrime.
Instead, regulated markets could see funds invested into tackling the causes of problematic alcohol and other drug use (i.e., economic inequality, poverty and deprivation) – and treatment – through taxation. All of this whilst simultaneously denying organised crime the funds to carry out other illegal activity.
A health issue, not a criminal issue
Drug use should never be considered a criminal issue. Almost all of us use some form of psychoactive drug regularly. We wouldn’t dream of criminalising someone for possessing or using alcohol. The vast majority (90%) of people who use currently illicit drugs do so recreationally, without developing a drug use disorder (but due to our current laws, are vulnerable to poisoning).
Those who develop a drug use disorder or addiction (most often people with underlying trauma or mental health issues) are experiencing a health issue. They are not criminals.
Punishing people who use drugs problematically simply does not work to help them stop. Indeed, by separating them from family or friends, denying them future employment or travel opportunities – it exacerbates and compounds their issues and breaches their human rights. It makes it less likely that they’ll be able to recover and heal, not more likely. Decriminalisation has worked very well at reducing harm in other countries, including notably Portugal, Switzerland and elsewhere.
As the eminent physician and expert on trauma and addiction Dr Gabor Mate says, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?”. Which begs his further question, “Why are we punishing people for having suffered?”
We recognise that Scotland must do better using our existing powers to tackle the issue of problematic drug use. We agree that drug treatment and services in Scotland fail people too often and need greater investment, increased treatment options and greater understanding and responsiveness to drug trends and the needs of specific communities (e.g. ethnic minorities and the LGBT community). We will continue to support and encourage the Scottish Government to create and maintain drug treatment services which are fit for purpose.
We also recognise that moving toward legalisation and regulation of drug markets must be handled carefully, whilst simultaneously addressing the underlying causes of drug use disorders including poverty, inequality and trauma.
That is why we are involved in such things as advocating for a Wellbeing Economy in Scotland through our membership of the Global Wellbeing Economy Alliance – and advocating for a trauma informed society via our membership of the National Trauma Training Programme. It’s why we focus on tackling the underlying causes of issues such as drug use disorders – through prevention and early intervention.
Decimalisation of drug possession, safer consumption rooms, heroin assisted treatment – these will not be silver bullets as we aim to reduce drug deaths in Scotland. Legalisation and regulation of drug markets would inevitably come with challenges.
But the health of our people, our institutions, and the safety of drug users and our wider communities would best be served by including all of the above in a multi-faceted response to Scotland’s drug problem.
You can find out more about this issue, and read more supporting evidence for our position below:
- SCSN Podcast with Simon McLean of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) Scotland
- ‘Swift, Certain, Tough?’ – More like sick and certainly tired – SCSN blog
- Stop and Search Podcast with LEAP Scotland
- Learn about Glasgow’s Heroin Assisted Treatment Facility
- Working to decriminalise people who use drugs: learning from decriminalisation efforts in 5 jurisdictions – Scottish Drugs Forum