THIS Thursday is April 20, known around the world as 4/20 Day – a day when cannabis users celebrate its use and, in countries where it is yet to be decriminalised, campaign for its decriminalisation.

Scotland is one of these countries, with the failed Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 being reserved to Westminster, meaning Scotland is tied to the UK’s regressive approach to drugs.

The UK currently considers cannabis to be a Class B substance alongside the likes of ketamine and codeine, meaning even just possession could result in a prison sentence of up to five years, and a fine of £2500. Growing or dealing can result in a prison sentence of 14 years.

While many countries around the world are changing their drug laws to be more progressive, the Tories are – as per usual – dragging us backwards.

In October 2022, it emerged that Home Secretary Suella Braverman wanted to reclassify cannabis as a Class A substance, placing it alongside heroin and cocaine in the highest category and bringing sentences of up to seven years for possession and life imprisonment for supplying.

While Humza Yousaf, who was health secretary at the time, condemned these comments, a recent speech by Keir Starmer only went to show that a Labour government in Westminster would be no less regressive when it comes to drug policy than the current Conservative one.

In a speech on crime last month, the hopeful future prime minister told journalists that the smell of cannabis smoke entering the homes of his constituents was “ruining their lives”.

What a load of nonsense.

While the smell of weed is hardly pleasant, the notion that it’s ruining lives is not only laughable, it’s dangerous. I can tell Starmer what has ruined people’s lives – the UK’s failed war on drugs.

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Cannabis is a drug that around 30% of adults in England and Wales have used at least once, and although comparative figures for Scotland aren’t available, it’s likely that the rate is similar north of the Border.

It’s a commonly used and relatively safe drug – significantly safer than alcohol and tobacco – and the majority of health complications resulting from its consumption are related to either the tobacco content when smoked or impurities as a result of dodgy dealers.

In fact, the vast majority of harm caused by cannabis is caused by its illegality as opposed to the drug itself. The fact that it’s illegal means there’s no regulation and therefore no scrutiny of dealers and the purity of what they’re producing and selling.

Health issues caused by contaminants can be far more dangerous than those caused by cannabis itself and there’s no incentive for dealers to produce a high-quality, safe product if they can cut corners to maximise profit.


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Likewise, crime breeds crime and the fact that the production and sale of cannabis must take place behind closed doors makes other crimes far more likely. A number of studies in the US have found that the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis results in a significant decrease in violent and organised crime.

Decriminalisation would also relieve a huge amount of pressure on the criminal justice system – according to 2017 research by the LibDems, police spend on average more than a million hours per year enforcing its prohibition across the UK.

Research also clearly shows that people of colour are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police on suspicion of possession, further demonstrating the systemic racism at the heart of the war on drugs.

All the evidence suggests that decriminalisation of cannabis is the common sense approach and would be a welcome move towards treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.

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This is the approach taken by a number of countries over the past few years, including Canada, Portugal and some US states.

Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001, and in the 20 years since, drug use levels have remained consistently below the EU average, as well as seeing significant drops in overdoses and drug-related crime.

Portugal’s approach is clearly working, while the UK’s war on drugs has clearly failed.

The LibDems, SNP and Scottish Greens all support decriminalisation, and a 2019 report by the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee made clear recommendations in support of it, but with drug policy reserved to the UK Government, Scotland’s hands are tied.

Just last year, the government of Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic, passed a bill to decriminalise cannabis as a key commitment of the Progressive Labour Party which was overwhelmingly elected in 2020.

Despite this significant support from the public and Bermuda’s democratically elected government, the UK Government blocked the bill from receiving royal assent, in a move which sounds all too familiar to those of us here in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has used its limited powers to make some progressive moves, such as the 2021 announcement by the Lord Advocate that those found to be in possession of drugs of any class can be issued a recorded warning rather than automatic prosecution.

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This is also hugely important for those who use cannabis for medical purposes. Although medicinal cannabis has been legalised in the UK, it can only be prescribed under very specific circumstances, forcing many to turn to the black market to get the basic medicine they need.

The Conservatives and Labour are both clearly attached to a policy that just doesn’t work, one which criminalises and stigmatises innocent people and unnecessarily burdens our health and justice systems.

The SNP and Greens have repeatedly called on the UK to devolve drug laws to Holyrood, but Westminster would much rather hoard the power for themselves and continue down this destructive path, allowing ordinary people to suffer as a result.

It couldn’t be clearer – the Misuse of Drugs Act has fundamentally failed, and has caused far more harm than the smell of cannabis ever could.