THERE is no need to pilot decriminalisation of personal drug use when we already know it works, the boss of a Scottish drug use support charity has said, as she expressed frustration around the UK Government’s lack of support for reform. 

The National Records of Scotland confirmed on Tuesday that 1051 people had died from drug use in Scotland last year, which represented the biggest fall since records began but is still 15 times the EU average.

Some charities have called for Westminster to hand Scotland the powers to pilot the decriminalisation of personal drug use or overdose prevention centres in order to make further progress.

But Justina Murray, CEO of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, warned against “endlessly piloting evidence-based practice”, insisting that both needed to be implemented fully.

“I don’t think we should be piloting any of this [decriminalisation or overdose prevention centres] because it’s all evidence-based practice.

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“Overdose prevention centres work, decriminalisation works alongside other things, these are proven approaches elsewhere so we need to be careful we’re not just endlessly piloting things that already have an evidence base.”

Asked if they both needed to be brought in fully, she said: “Yes."

On decriminalisation, she added: "What families have said to us is that most of their loved ones have had some kind of engagement with the criminal justice system and it’s never had a positive outcome and it’s caused a lot more harm to the individuals.

“So that alone tells you the justice system is not a solution to the drugs crisis. I think there are some within the justice system that recognise that.”

The Scottish Government came out in support of the decriminalisation of personal drug use in July but the UK Government rejected the idea within hours, as Rishi Sunak said he had no plans to change his “tough stance” on drugs.

Murray said this approach was frustrating when drugs policy is reserved to Westminster.

But she did stress that even if the Scottish Government were handed powers to implement decriminalisation, appropriate support systems would need to be in place to ensure it had the desired effect.

She insisted there was still a lot wrong with how substance use is looked upon in Scotland and decriminalisation would not be a silver bullet.


Murray added: “Where they have had decriminalisation approaches such as in Portugal, they also put a lot of other things in place alongside that like really good treatment services, multi-agency responses.

“You can see that it’s not as simple as just decriminalising and everything is rosy.

“It’s frustrating there’s a very different philosophy with the UK Government which is still embedded in that criminal justice framework.

"In Scotland we’ve moved things into a public health framework which is more positive, but I do think a lot of that criminal justice, moral framework is still in play in Scotland.

“It’s not right to say it’s treated like every other health condition. If you had cancer or a long-term chronic health condition there would be a clear treatment pathway, and actually we see drug services can be quite punitive and judgemental.

“I think it is a frustration there is this disconnect between the UK and Scottish governments but there’s a lot that could be improved within the existing framework we’ve got.”

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Drug misuse deaths are still more common than they were two decades ago. After adjusting for age, there were 3.7 times as many drug misuse deaths in 2022 as in the year 2000 in Scotland.

Murray said families who have lost loved ones need to be brought into conversations more about how to improve treatment and support.

“I’m very mindful of people who have lost loved ones that if they see this celebratory approach to the biggest fall since records began, that’s pretty hollow for them,” said Murray.

“Families to be part of these conversations [about improving support]. They have got the answers and they’re not really included.

“That says it all about the attitude to families when at this time of year there is sympathy for people’s loss, but we’re not actually prepared to hear the hard messages from families about what would’ve saved their loved one’s life. We’ve got to pull families into this conversation.”

Asked about the fall in deaths – with 2022 having the lowest figure since 2017 – Murray added: “I would describe it as a step in the right direction but if that rate of decrease continues, it’s going to take us 10 years to get to below 100 deaths a year and by then over 3500 more people are going to have died.

“We’re a long way off solving the crisis in Scotland.”