Scotland can become an international leader on drugs policy

by Andy Paterson

The Scottish Government’s recent proposal on the decriminalisation of drugs in Scotland marks a significant milestone in addressing the complex issue of substance abuse and drug dependency. This has been described as a needless attempt by the Scottish Government to undermine Westminster and advance the case and cause of Scottish independence. However, though interwoven with the report, this is not about Scottish independence — it’s about re-evaluating Scotland’s relationship with drugs, whether they are legal or not.

One of the commendable aspects of the proposal is its recognition that drug dependency is a public health issue. By shifting the focus from punishment to treatment, prevention and support services, the paper demonstrates a compassionate approach that prioritises the well-being and recovery of individuals struggling with addiction. This stance aligns with international best practice, emphasising harm reduction and evidence-based strategies that have proven successful, across Portugal, Canada and Switzerland in improving outcomes and reducing drug-related harm.

One part of the paper which is unfortunately not grabbing the headlines is the change desired in the Equality Act 2010, which would include those with substance dependencies within the Act’s definition of disability. This would be a crucial change to how we view dependency and importantly would tackle stigma over the issue of drug use.

This is connected to the role that stigma plays when it comes to the issue we struggle with in Scotland. The language we use only adds to the problem; terms like “junkie”, “abuse” and “addicts” produce negative images due to decades of poor drug education and mass amounts of misinformation.

This is mainly due to the efforts of the (now widely regarded as failed) War on Drugs started by US President Nixon, who primarily started the war to target two sets of groups who he viewed as a threat to his office: Black Americans and the anti-war left. These efforts did not end with Nixon, as we see the over-policing of minority groups across the globe, from America, to France and even in Scotland. Credit is due to the Scottish Government for admitting the War on Drugs has failed, and highlighting that the “UK’s approach has disproportionately criminalised minority ethnic communities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Scotland has an opportunity to serve as an international leader in progressive drug policy by adopting this proposal. It’s often cited that we would be following in the footsteps of countries such as Portugal and Switzerland. However, by decriminalising drugs and implementing evidence-based harm reduction strategies, Scotland can inspire and guide other nations grappling with similar challenges. The government’s commitment to a health-centred approach, combined with the recognition of the potential impact on broader political discussions, positions Scotland as a beacon of innovation and compassion — especially at a time when compassion-based leadership is severely lacking in the United Kingdom.

Yet we must go further in highlighting how to treat the core issue at the heart of the issue, including why those in a socio-economically deprived area of Scotland are 15 times more likely to die due to a drug-related cause. Poverty, inequality and systematic mistreatment of the working class are the poisonous roots at the heart of Scotland’s drug crisis.

By taking the step of decriminalising and treating those who use drugs as people again, we are taking a small, but important step in the right direction. Efforts to provide a supportive and inclusive environment in the communities which have been most damaged by the prohibition of drugs must be made to reduce the isolation a person with a health condition feels and to remove the decades-long association forced upon the public that drug use is criminal.

We must not forget how Scotland arrived in such a disarray when it comes to drug deaths. The change in drug policy put forward by the Scottish Government and the SNP is a welcome one. However, it is the SNP slashing local budgets to drug services that has accelerated this issue in Scotland. If the party survives the next general election, the implementation of this report will be a good way of apologising for their previous disastrous policy. With only the Greens and the Liberal Democrats supporting the report, questions must be asked of Scottish Labour. Their stance on this report will, no doubt, change under Keir Starmer so that it is much more in-line with Westminster — an incredibly sad reflection on a party which is meant to support the working class.

Political parties aside, this report is a fantastic opportunity for Scotland to achieve real change across the country. If Westminster agrees to the devolution of these powers, this report could be the beginning of a whole new evidence-inspired policy decision making — which would be something to celebrate, because often the evidence suggests that health issues and poverty are deeply related, and that the easiest way to solve these issues is through public services and the taxation of higher earners. This may be some time away, as the current political thinking in London seems to reject any evidence that could improve the lives of the working class.

Drug decriminalisation is a positive step towards addressing substance dependency in Scotland. This forward-thinking stance, coupled with the potential for resource reallocation and international leadership, showcases the Scottish Government’s rare commitment to progressive policies that prioritise public health, social well-being, and human rights. Overall, this proposal has the potential to contribute to a more just, equitable and compassionate society, making Scotland a role model for other nations seeking effective and evidence-based solutions to drug-related challenges.

However, it must be emphasised that this report and the current welcoming climate in Scotland surrounding change in drug policy would not be there if it was not for the efforts and activism of those demanding change for years. The academic and policymaking side of policy has been in favour of these changes for decades, highlighted through the resignation of Professor David Nutt under the Labour government of the mid-2000s, who walked due to the re-classification of cannabis moving from a Class C to Class B drug — a move described by a Labour staffer as trying to win over the Conservatives and Daily Mail readers (some things never change).

What I believe has brought these changes to the forefront is the activism of many different groups, but a key figure of note would be Peter Krykant. His work to establish a community safe consumption service in Glasgow was life-saving and he should be praised for his work. Instead, Police Scotland arrested him for his public service; he was later released, but it does highlight the issues that happen when drugs are treated as a criminal problem rather than a health one.

Peter’s work also inspired me to make changes and to push the Help Not Harm campaign to universities across Scotland, with plans to enter local communities as well. Our harm reduction campaign based on educational materials and providing free testing kits for drugs was successful in Stirling, with Stirling Students’ Union becoming the first university student union in Scotland to provide testing kits. These kits test substances instead of individuals; by doing so, you make consumption safer and can open the conversation over drug use and begin efforts to tackle the current stigma we have across Scotland.

I actively look forward to more reports of this background produced by the Scottish Government. I only fear Holyrood may not be able to implement them.



Andy Paterson is co-ordinator of the Help Not Harm campaign and a member of the Scottish Socialist Youth. He focuses primarily on drug policy, grassroots building and independence — as well as supporting Hibernian F.C. for his sins.



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