Rehabilitation funding is the solution to reducing Scotland’s unacceptably high level of drug deaths - John McLellan

As High Street traders face daily battles with the consequences of the failed “war on drugs” it will take some explaining for them to understand how the Scottish Government’s aim of legalising possession of drugs for personal use is the answer.
The mortality rate from drug use in Scotland is over three times that of the rate in the rest of the UKThe mortality rate from drug use in Scotland is over three times that of the rate in the rest of the UK
The mortality rate from drug use in Scotland is over three times that of the rate in the rest of the UK

It won’t do away with the methadone queue at the Royal Mile Pharmacy, and it’s a fair guess that decriminalising something which is already decriminalised in practice ─ and when police already struggle to deal with drug-related anti-social behaviour ─ will make no difference whatsoever.

But then last week’s call by the SNP’s Drugs Policy Minister Elena Whitham for the UK Government to legalise the possession of all drugs for personal consumption was less a serious attempt to reverse Scotland’s abysmal record, but more a serious attempt to stoke another constitutional row.

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The SNP knows only too well the UK Government has no intention of legalising drug possession or allowing the Scottish Parliament to alter the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act, but rather than dealing with the crisis using their considerable existing powers, they are picking another fight over those they don’t.

If the UK Government won’t change the law, independence is the only answer, said Ms Whitham. As usual.

Like the Referendum Bill, gender recognition reform, children’s rights and the deposit return scheme, it’s the same old smokescreen for botched policies in which legal disputes are a desired outcome.

When incoming Police Scotland Chief Constable Jo Farrell took over at Durham, she rightly said “We are not going to arrest ourselves out of the drug issue”, and in stopping short of calling for decriminalisation she is in the same place as the head of Scotland’s prosecution service, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, who in September 2021 effectively called a halt to arrest for possession without the need for legalisation.

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In one of her first acts in office ─ after Police Scotland had recorded 35,410 drug crimes in the year to April 2021 ─ Ms Bain decreed police could deal with possession of Class A drugs with a warning, putting cocaine and heroin in the same position as Class B drugs like cannabis and amphetamines.

“Recorded Police Warnings represent a proportionate criminal justice response to a level of offending and are an enforcement of the law,” she told the Scottish Parliament, and although concerns were raised at the time there has been no clamour for a reversal.

But there has been a clamour for investment in an appropriate system of treatment and rehabilitation after the SNP slashed direct funding for rehab by a fifth in 2016, and eight consecutive years of rising deaths to 1,339 two years ago, the worst in Europe, with only an insignificant drop to 1,330 fatalities last year.

Admitting its fatal error, in June 2021 the Scottish Government announced a £50m investment over five years to reduce drug deaths, but only promised £5m for residential rehabilitation while pledging double that for alternative drugs.

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Why the Scottish Government appears more determined to keep addicts dependent than to wean them off is anyone’s guess, but Ms Whitham plumbed the depths with a ludicrously exaggerated claim that “criminalisation kills".

When Scotland’s death rate is treble that of England, despite identical regulations, and when the SNP repeatedly snubs a new law to guarantee rehab, if anything kills apart from the drugs themselves, it’s SNP policy.