ONE week ago, SNP members sent a strong message on what Scotland ’s approach to drug policy should look like when they voted unanimously for decriminalisation at the party’s autumn conference.

In many ways, this is a symbolic move – the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have the power to change the law on drugs, which is reserved to Westminster. And the Conservative Government has made it clear that it has no intention of reviewing the law, holding fast to the conventional wisdom of “cracking down” on drugs, despite all of the evidence that this approach has failed miserably.

However, as CEO of the Scottish Drugs Forum David Liddell has pointed out, the SNP’s new position could be reflected in Police Scotland practice through the use of recorded police warnings for drug possession. This has already been adopted for cannabis possession in Scotland and has been extended in some English police authorities to include other drugs.

But the message in itself is significant. That the largest political party in Scotland is now formally backing decriminalisation is a vital step in changing the conversation on drugs, in applying pressure to this and future UK governments and in setting out a vision for a fully devolved Scottish drugs policy.

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The Scottish Government has already backed changing the law to allow for exemptions in the form of safer consumption facilities for heroin users, with the aim of reducing the spread of disease and, ultimately, saving lives. The facilities have been advocated in Scotland because of the country’s worryingly high number of drug-related deaths, which has also led to the creation of a drug deaths taskforce by the Scottish Government.

Now, we should be able to look forward to government ministers taking a strong stance on ending the criminalisation of drug users more broadly – if they are to reflect their party’s policy.

The failings of existing drug policy are increasingly understood by politicians, with Labour also announcing last month that they would, if elected at Westminster, establish a royal commission to “review independently all drugs legislation and policy to address related issues of public health”.

Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Monica Lennon has spoken in support of decriminalising possession, and the Scottish Greens, Green Party of England and Wales and LibDems all back decriminalisation in some form.

This is all great news for anyone who wants to see people with addictions supported by health and social care services instead of locked up or pushed further into the margins of society, where their lives and future prospects are thrown into disarray. This is what criminalising vulnerable people does. It doesn’t deter people from using drugs, it doesn’t protect people from harm and it doesn’t do anything to tackle the root causes of addiction.

But it’s also important to understand that decriminalisation isn’t the end of the line for “radical” drug policy. In fact, it’s a halfway house between where we currently are and full legalisation, which means that a considerable part of the problem would remain unchecked.

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The position adopted by the SNP is similar to the approach used in Portugal since 2001. Portugal made the consumption or possession of drugs for personal use a civil offence, while the supply of drugs remains a criminal offence.

People who are caught in possession of drugs must appear before “dissuasion commissions” which can refer them on for treatment, and users can still face fines and community service if they refuse. Importantly, while the new Portuguese system has brought about a dramatic fall in the number of drug-related deaths and cases of HIV and hepatitis C, control of the supply still lies with the criminal gangs.

Managing the health-related harms of drugs is absolutely vital, but one of the major challenges in protecting drug users in an illegal market is that the product itself is unregulated. When people buy alcohol, they can read the label to find out the concentration – they know what they’re getting. This is not so when it comes to controlled drugs, and the consequences can be fatal.

The people thriving in the illegal drug industry are organised criminal networks who benefit directly from people’s addictions – as well as from more widespread recreational drug use – but face no regulation in how they produce or distribute their product. Ignoring this aspect of the failing “war on drugs” leaves unscathed an industry linked directly with gang violence; an industry which has no qualms about recruiting young and vulnerable people to work for it and which fuels crime in the poorest communities.

The international drug trade is also associated with global inequality, with some of the poorest countries producing a substantial portion of drugs which are trafficked elsewhere. By criminalising the supply of drugs within Scotland and the rest of the UK, we are simply putting power into the hands of criminal networks, not only in the UK but the world over.

And while decriminalising possession for personal use will certainly avoid countless unnecessary criminal convictions which can adversely impact on a person’s life, it will not end the criminalisation of low-level drug suppliers.

Surely there are mixed signals at play if we accept that drug use should not be stigmatised and yet no legal means of supplying those drugs can be made available? If our politicians (at least, the remotely sensible ones) have now been forced to accept that many people will continue to use drugs and that a harm-reduction approach is necessary, why are they conceding that the drugs industry should continue to benefit the powerful criminals who operate through a regime of violence and fear?

Of course, those who oppose legalisation will say that this is exactly why law enforcement agencies should focus their attentions on bringing down organised crime. And yet the evidence tells us that this strategy is simply not working: the capacity to deal with a problem of this magnitude just doesn’t exist.

The biggest threat to this criminal industry would be to pull the source of its income right out from under it. This approach has been adopted successfully in other parts of the world in relation to cannabis, and the LibDems, Scottish Greens and Green Party of England and Wales have all called for legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the UK.

It’s not hard to understand why cannabis is an easy first step when it comes to legalisation: after all, the case for treating cannabis as a more dangerous drug than alcohol or tobacco is incredibly weak. But the argument for legalisation, as with decriminalisation, is not primarily about whether or not taking a particular drug is a good idea. It’s about looking at the evidence of what is actually happening and adopting a position which best responds to that reality, rather than adopting a moralistic view which leaves people marginalised and unsafe.

This is why the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) backs the legalisation of all illegal drugs. Former chair of Strathclyde Police Federation Jim Duffy, who now campaigns for LEAP, told Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee this July: “We have a worldwide market entirely controlled by criminals who care not a jot about the age of the person who buys the drugs, the state of them, what the content is or what it is adulterated with.

“We need to take it away from organised crime groups. We need to legalise, legislate and control.”

With so much attention on Scotland’s approach to drugs, the time is ripe to take a radical stance which reflects the true nature of the problem.

That means looking not only at individual drug use, but at how to finally pose a serious challenge to the exploitative industry that surrounds it.