Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2015
Source: Sunday Herald, The (UK)
Copyright: 2015 Sunday Herald
Author: Judith Duffy


SCOTLAND must start the debate on decriminalising drugs, campaigners, 
MSPs and former government advisers have said.

The call follows an announcement by the Irish government that it 
plans a "radical culture shift" which will see possession of drugs 
decriminalised in ordered to focus on offering helping to addicts and 
users rather than punishing them with criminal convictions and prison.

As the call came, the Scottish Government also told the Sunday Herald 
that it was reaffirming its wish for Holyrood to take responsibility 
over drug laws, which are currently reserved to Westminster.

Last week Ireland's drugs minister Aodhan O Riordain said drug users 
would be able to inject in specially designated rooms in Dublin from 
next year. A government report also proposed that while it would 
remain a crime to profit from drugs, users would no longer be criminalised.

The move comes amid a growing global discussion over the efficacy of 
the 'war on drugs' over the past few decades. Over the past ten years 
a number of countries have introduced some form of decriminalisation, 
including Portugal, Chile, the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Next year a special session of the United Nations General Assembly 
will be held to look at the world's drug problem, including 
discussions on policies such as decriminalisation and legal regulation.

Latest figures show in 2014 the number of drug-related deaths in 
Scotland rose to its highest level since records began, with a total 
of 613 fatalities.

There were 31,632 convictions for possession of drugs in Scotland in 
2014-15. The number of crimes involving possession of drugs with 
intent to supply was around a tenth of that figure at 3,700.

Supporters of decriminalisation say it would make it more likely for 
users to get treatment if needed, reduce criminal justice costs and 
prevent many drug users from the devastating impact of a criminal 
conviction on their life.

Mike McCarron, a former Scottish government adviser and member of 
campaign group Transform Drug Policy Foundation Scotland, said there 
had been little discussion around decriminalisation in Scotland.

But he added: "There has been so much change going on in the world 
over the past two or three years. So I think Scotland now probably 
would be wise to start talking about these issues."

McCarron, a former member of the advisory committee for the Scottish 
Government's drug strategy, said he had believed twenty years ago 
that criminalisation and blanket prohibition of drugs was 
contributing to the harm. But he said at that time it was impossible 
to talk about it publicly  and only now was it being discussed openly.

He said Scotland could also look at whether Holyrood could use any 
current powers to introduce ideas such as drug treatment rooms and 
prescription heroin.

McCarron added: "There are still large numbers of offenders who are 
recreational users and still a lot of people being criminalised. 
Mental health difficulties, chronic mental health problems combined 
with issues like homelessness, unemployment, broken relationships are 
the kind of situations which are the underlying reasons why people 
have drug problem. So if you are being criminalised as well, that is 
adding to your problems."

While the Scottish Government does want powers over drug laws, a 
senior government source stressed that this did not mean it was 
seeking to change policy.

However SNP MSP Christine Grahame, convenor of Holyrood's justice 
committee, said she believed a debate on decriminalisation was 
needed. "We should have this debate as people who are users of drugs 
and are trapped in it are victims.

"While we keep it a criminal offence then people will hide what they 
are doing. The reason I think it is important for Scotland is there 
are so many within our prisons, so many children who are brought up 
in homes where there is drug using going on and are then blighted for 
life, we deal with those things, but we don't deal with the causes."

Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, said he 
believed there was a lack of willingness for politicians in Scotland 
to engage with the issue.

"Because Scotland at the moment doesn't have the legal ability to 
take a change of direction here, there has been a lot less 
willingness to start raising the issue," he said.

"I think it is a failure of our political debate and it is one that 
has a really tangible impact on people's lives. It is a source of 
great frustration that Scotland isn't willing or ready or able to 
have this debate at the level that is required."

Harvie said the Green party had submitted written evidence to the 
Smith Commission highlighting drug laws as an issue which should be 
devolved, but it was not covered in the commission's report.

He added: "If the Smith Commission had agreed this should be a 
devolved issue, there clearly would be an opportunity to begin to 
take evidence on what the long-term impact has been of the current 
legal framework, what the consequences are of leaving this industry 
in the hands of gangsters and what the arguments for and against a 
change of direction would be. The criminalisation agenda globally has 
failed and in time I have very little doubt there will be a move away from it."

David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said there was 
now a greater willingness across a range of organisations globally to 
consider issues around decriminalisation  even among more "zero 
tolerance" groups.

He added: "As an organisation we have tended to focus on what we 
would see as the more important issues - around poverty and 
inequality and the concentration of drug problems in our poorest 
communities. In some respects, the whole issue of drug law reform has 
been a bit of a diversion from some of the more pressing issues.

"That is not to say at the same time that we wouldn't be supportive 
of the need to start to look at those issues."

However any moves to shift Scotland's stance on tackling the drug 
problem towards decriminalisation will not be met with unanimous support.

Scottish Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former director 
of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said how Scotland 
currently deals with alcohol was not a good example of what might 
happen if drugs were decriminalised more widely.

He said: "The cost to the public purse of those who are problematic 
because of drugs is already hugely significant and would become a 
more difficult problem under a decriminalised culture.

"Given our experience of the health service and the way they are 
coping now, I am sure the last thing it wants is more patients coming 
in through to the door who suffer from substance abuse and other 
related ailments."

He said efforts to tackle drugs should be made outwith the areas law 
enforcement and legislation  for example by boosting employment 
prospects and increasing wages.

He said: "I think you would find our problems with drugs would begin 
to melt away if people had an active life and a purpose. I don't 
think there is any lack of evidence that links the devastation of 
steel, shipyards, railworks at Springburn, with the growth of heroin 
and cocaine going through the late 80s and 90s into the present day.

"Unemployment, poverty and a lack of opportunity has created our 
current drug problem and of course the supply of drugs by criminal 
gangs who see the profit in it."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We have no plans to support 
the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs."


Truth about drug laws

CRITICS of decriminalisation of drugs often argue it will lead to 
dramatic increases in use and overall harm.

But a recent report by drugs law charity Release pointed out 
decriminalisation is often confused with the idea of legalising drugs 
or completely removing all sanctions.

There is no clear definition of what decriminalisation means, with 
policies varying from country to country, but in essence it means 
possessing small amounts of drugs will no longer lead to a criminal 
record or jail sentence.

For example, Mexico allows the possession of up to 0.5 grams of 
cocaine without prosecution, while in Spain the amount permitted 
rises to 7.5 grams. The sanctions which can be imposed also vary 
widely from country to country, such as fines, education classes, 
travel banks, termination of benefits or no penalty at all.

Some countries such as the Czech Republic allow the police to issue 
fines for small drug offences, similar to a speeding ticket. However, 
in Brazil, for example, individuals arrested for drug offences still 
have to appear before a judge in court to determine the charge.

Report authors Ari Rosmarin and Niamh Eastwood concluded around 25 to 
30 countries around the world have some formal decriminalisation policy.


Portugal: success story

WHEN it comes to the issue of decriminalising drugs, campaigners 
often point to the example of Portugal as a success story.

In 2000, it decided to treat possession and use of small quantities 
of anything from cannabis to heroin as a public health issue, not a 
criminal one.

It means individuals caught with up to 10 days' worth of an average 
daily dose of illegal drugs for personal use are referred to panels 
that decide what measures to take in respect of an offence  such as 
fines or referral for treatment. Most first-time offenders without a 
drug problem face no sanctions.

According to a recent report compiled by charity Release, which 
focuses on drug law, the impact of the policy has been varied. 
Analysis suggests there was a small rise in lifetime drug use among 
adults after decriminalisation. However, Portugal's level of drug use 
is still below the European average.

There have been increases in the number of drug-dependent individuals 
in treatment and a significant decrease in the number of drug-related deaths.

The number of criminal drug offences fell from about 14,000 per year 
before decriminalisation to about 5,500. And the number of prisoners 
in jail for drug-related offences fell from 44 per cent in 1999 to 21 
per cent by 2008.


Ireland ends war on drugs

THE Republic of Ireland signalled a shift in its approach towards 
tackling drugs last week when a government minister said users should 
get access to medically supervised injecting centres.

Aodhan O Riordain, who is responsible for the national drugs 
strategy, said he expected the centres  aimed at offering a 
"controlled environment" to encourage addicts to seek help  would 
open next year.

In a speech at the London School of Economics, he said: "Addiction is 
not a choice, it's a healthcare issue. This is why I believe it is 
imperative that we approach our drug problem in a more compassionate 
and sensitive way.

"These drug users are at increased risk of overdose and blood-borne 
disease infections, and the general public is at risk owing to unsafe 
disposal of syringes and other drug paraphernalia."

"A medically supervised injecting centre is not the answer to the 
drug problem, but could form part of a suite of harm reduction measures."

A report for the Irish Parliament's justice committee last week also 
proposed Ireland should follow the lead of Portugal and decriminalise 
possession of small quantities of drugs.

While the possession of drugs would remain illegal, those caught 
would be offered treatment and counselling.


UN to push for change

A DECADE ago, a meeting of United Nations member states focused on 
creating a "drug-free" world.

Next April, when the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs 
(UNGASS) meets in New York, a push to rethink that approach is expected.

A recent UN briefing paper on drugs and crime called for governments 
to decriminalise the possession and use of all drugs , although it 
later said it did not represent the UN's official position.

The UNGASS meeting, originally scheduled to take place in 2019, was 
brought forward at the request of the presidents of Colombia, Mexico 
and Guatemala  countries home to the world's major drug trafficking cartels.

Neil Woods is chairman of campaign group Law Enforcement Against 
Prohibition (LEAP) UK, due to formally launch next year ahead of the summit.

The former detective sergeant, who worked undercover in England in 
drugs enforcement, said: "Mexico is in complete chaos and it is the 
control of drug dealers which has done that.

"People might feel very secure from that corruption in this country, 
but as an undercover police officer I saw that up close  I even had a 
spy in my backup team. I was infiltrated by the gangsters I was 
trying to infiltrate.

"That kind of corruption can only be possible because of the money 
involved in the criminal supply of drugs."
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