CALLS by former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to reform Scotland’s drugs policies have been roundly rejected, as the government said it would not support “legalisation or decriminalisation.”

MacAskill, had called for the changes in a column for our sister paper, The Herald, writing that “the direction is for drugs policy to be no longer primarily a law enforcement issue but become predominantly a health and social one.”

The MSP argued for the establishing of a commission to look at “setting the legislative base for a modern drugs policy for Scotland.”

It follows moves last week by Police Scotland to no longer prosecute anyone found possessing cannabis for personal consumption, but rather to give them a warning.

The Scottish Government yesterday said they would not change the laws around drugs in Scotland even if they could.

A spokeswoman for the government said: “The classification of drugs is reserved to Westminster – however, should we gain responsibility for the issue, we have no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. The medicinal use of drugs is a separate issue.”

Scottish Labour justice spokesman, and former chairman of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, Graeme Pearson said MacAskill’s proposals were dangerous.

“Kenny MacAskill had years as justice secretary to reform how our justice system works,” Pearson said. “His proposals today, with one foot out the door of Holyrood, are wrong and potentially dangerous. In my view recent changes to possession of cannabis to result in fixed warnings sends out a dangerous signal.”

Pearson continued: “The key is to choke off drug supplies whilst delivering effective support services for those communities that need them. The statistics show this government has failed.”

MSP John Finnie, a former policeman who now speaks for the Greens on justice said the evidence did not support Pearson’s argument: “Our drug laws are dated and, in most instances, simply serve to criminalise, and thereby affect the life chances of countless otherwise law-abiding folk.

“His comments about the so-called war on drugs being lost echo what many have been saying for some time. Imagine if the countless billions poured into failed law enforcement had instead been directed to education and the provision of the full range of harm reduction treatments. Evidence from elsewhere shows that changed approach would see drug-related deaths drop significantly.”

Writing in today’s National, MacAskill warned that serious organised crime in Scotland could get worse if drug laws weren’t reformed.

Reform of drug laws would, he says, allow police to be “freed up to tackle the gangsters not the minions. There will still be laws and problems but some progress too. The war on drugs has failed and it’s time for health and social solutions.”

MacAskill found plenty of support for his proposal from drug policy specialists.

Anna Ross from the University of Edinburgh told the National that MacAskill’s comments are “what many within the public and private sectors believe, but do not say for fear of political comeback.”

“However, I think the landscape is changing and there is real evidence now that decriminalisation reduces the stigma associated with drug use and therefore increases public awareness of harms. In addition it creates an atmosphere where things such as drug injection rooms can operate, and these have been shown to significantly reduce the most damaging harms such as transmission of blood-born viruses and other health related problems.”

The academic warned that decriminalisation would not be enough and to address the underlying reasons for problematic drug use, the government would need to “put money into creating support structures, counselling, and access to proper jobs, housing and therapeutic recovery.”

Portuguese model halves heroin use

PORTUGAL decriminalised personal possession of all drugs in 2001. Although no longer a criminal offence to possess drugs for personal use, it is still a violation, and people can be fined or sentenced to community service. Those penalties are decided by local ‘Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’, formed of legal, health and social work professionals. Most who find themselves in front of the panel effectively receive no penalty, but people who are dependent on drugs are encouraged to seek treatment.

The results of Portugal’s policy has seen HIV infections and drug-related deaths decrease substantially and has effectively halved the problem of heroin abuse. Much to the surprise of the policy’s critics, there has been no apparent rise in drug use and crime has fallen.

Many policy experts argue the change in the law is only part of the reason for the improvement, with the country’s shift towards a more “health-centred approach” to drugs also helping. The country has expanded and improved prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration programmes.

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