The UK Government has been accused of a “cowardly” rejection of growing international evidence for the decriminalisation of drugs.
Westminster ministers on Friday unveiled what they called a “world-leading” new strategy firmly based on long-standing rhetoric on abstinence rather than harm reduction.
They highlighted new threats, such as “Chemsex” substances such as crystal methamphetamine used to enhance sexual encounters and newly outlawed synthetic drugs once called legal highs.
However, critics said the strategy was a missed opportunity for Britain to follow countries like Ireland and Portugal and deal with drug abuse as a health rather than a criminal issue.
SNP MP Ronnie Cowan, whose Inverclyde constituency has historically suffered a horrendous toll of drugs deaths, said: “When is the government going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue and the war on drugs, as it has been waged for the last hundred years, has failed?
“ We will never bring it to and end while our primary focus is stamping down on dealers and users. In continuing to do that we marginalise the very people we should be seeking to help. This is a cowardly report and an opportunity lost.”
Mr Cowan acknowledged that the report had some “nods” to health solutions. And ministers stressed measures to improve recovery, including better co-ordination between sexual health and drug support units.
Much of the detail of the report is irrelevant in Scotland, where drug treatment and care for addicts and other users is devolved. However, the focus on law enforcement Mr Cowan criticised does have effect north of the border. The Scottish Government does not have powers to legalise or decriminalise drugs. Police and prosecutors do, however, have some discretion on how they enforce current laws. Authorities, for example, are currently figuring out how they can waive normal possession laws for heroin addicts making their way to supervised “shooting galleries” planned in Glasgow. Such facilities have saved lives overseas.
Scottish campaigner Annie Marie Cockburn was sorely disappointed by the UK Government yesterday.
Her daughter, Martha Fernback, died in Oxford in 2013 after buying crystallised MDMA, a drug more usually called ecstasy when sold as a pill. Ms Fernback was just 15 and has researched her purchase. What she did not know was how strong the substance was going to be: it turned out to be far purer than she expected.
Ms Cockburn believes a regulated market for legal drugs would have saved her daughter’s life. But she would be ready to accept a compromise where drugs for personal use did not result in conviction if users agreed to co-operate with health authorities, as in Portugal.
She said: “I think decriminalisation as in Portugal would be a good half way solution. Only three people in a million die of drugs there, here it is 44.
“However, legalisation and regulation would be so much safer. So many politicians want reform before they get their big jobs and then after they resign.”
Such politicians include former Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who now wants Scotland to get powers to decriminalise some drugs. For now, Holyrood can only fix the symptoms of drug laws, not change them.
Home Office Minister Sarah Newton, however, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme she had looked at arguments for decriminalisation but “when you look at all the other available evidence, we just don’t agree”. Home Secretary Amber Rudd repeated get tough rhetoric.