UK government rejects Scottish illegal drugs policy rethink


A series of recommendations from MPs to address record drug deaths in Scotland have been rejected by the UK government.


In a November 2019 report Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee had called for major changes to drugs policy to tackle what it called a ‘public health emergency’.


MP Pete Wishart, who chairs the cross-party committee, said he was “surprised and disappointed” at the government’s “almost wholesale rejection” of the Committee’s findings.


“What is evident is there’s little change in the government’s drugs strategy despite the death rate in Scotland from problem drug use remaining stubbornly higher than any country in Europe,” he said.


“This fact itself should demonstrate that the current approach isn’t working. This is undoubtedly a public health emergency.”


An all-time high of 1,187 people in Scotland lost their lives to drugs in 2018.


The UK and Scottish governments continue to disagree over how to respond to this, including a row over a cross-UK summit to address drugs deaths held in Glasgow earlier this year.


Calls for change by the committee included the decriminalisation of drugs, moving from a criminal to a public health approach to misuse and, most controversially, introducing pilot safe drugs consumption spaces.


But in its official response to the inquiry, published today after delays due to the 2019 general election and the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government said it does ‘not accept that problem drug use is singularly a health issue’.


It went on to say there were too many legal difficulties to permit the establishment of a trial safe drugs consumption room in Scotland, despite a call from the committee.


Kit Malthouse MP, the UK government’s Minister for Crime and Policing, rejected a call to declare a public health emergency. He said:


‘We are already taking action to tackle problem drug use and our approach continues to be a balanced one which is anchored in: education to reduce demand; tough and intelligent enforcement to restrict supply; evidence-based treatment to aid recovery; and co-ordinated global action.


‘We are continuing to increase our efforts to choke off the supply of harmful drugs and relentlessly pursue the organised criminals behind this trade.


‘Tough enforcement is a fundamental part of our drug strategy and we are taking coordinated action to tackle illicit drug use alongside other criminal activity.’


Other recommendations to reform the ‘adversarial’ nature of the benefits system and major changes to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act were similarly rejected.


However, Mr Malthouse said he agreed ‘in principle’ that it was important for both the UK and Scottish governments to work together across different agencies to address problem drug use.


Committee chair Pete Wishart said:


“The predecessor Committee’s report on problem drug use in Scotland followed one of the most extensive drugs inquiries in Scotland ever conducted.


“We argued that a public health approach will do better at tackling the drivers of problem drug use, as opposed to the stigmatisation offered by the current criminal justice approach that effectively blocks routes to recovery.


“On the proposal for safe consumption facilities, the government has repeatedly stressed that this is something that they do not favour.


“In their response to our report they re-iterated the legal challenges to a pilot being established even though we saw for ourselves how effective these facilities have been in saving lives in a number of countries round the world.


“The report of the previous Committee encouraged the government to do what is necessary to approve the proposed pilot scheme in Glasgow. This would give people using drugs greater exposure to the full range of services to help them recover. More lives could be saved.


“The government describes its approach to tackling the issue as ‘evidence-based’ but offers little evidence supporting it and fails to address why the evidence we collected should be discounted.”


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