CLAIM: “I find it a ridiculous policy aim of the Scottish Government to decriminalise drugs...” Douglas Ross MSP, LBC, August 22.


The SNP government wants to decriminalise drug use and give addicts better medical help, while continuing to go after the criminal drug dealers. Tory Home Secretary Suella Braverman wants to punish addicts by taking away their driving licences and passports.


In an interview on August 22, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross stated: “…I find it a ridiculous policy aim of the Scottish Government to decriminalise drugs - how is putting more drugs on the streets of Scotland going to reduce our drug deaths?”

He went on: “I am the husband of a police officer and I know our police do outstanding work to deter and to remove drugs from our streets day in, day out.”  This seemed to imply both that Mr Ross was claiming some special knowledge of the situation and that the Scottish government had some intention to reduce the ability of Police Scotland to “remove drugs from our streets”.

Mr Ross also called on the SNP government to back his own “Right to Recovery” Bill.

READ MORE: Calls for decriminalisation in wake of Scottish drugs deaths figures


In January 2021, then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new national policy mission to reduce drug deaths, supported by an extra £50m per annum in funding. In essence, this was based on treating drug misuse as a medical problem rather than criminal or antisocial behaviour on the part of the drug user and approaching treatment in a holistic, multi-agency fashion. However, the policy document (“National Drugs Mission Plan: 2022-2026”) stated clearly that the Scottish Government had the intention to ensure the “supply of harmful drugs is reduced”.

The Scottish Government was also clear that its ability to purse an independent drugs policy is severely restricted by the devolution settlement. Drugs laws are reserved to Westminster, under the Scotland Act. However, the Scottish Government has responsibility for health and social policies around drug consumption. The SNP government has no legal jurisdiction to end the criminalisation of drug dealing or consumption of controlled substances.

In July this year, the SNP government issued a fresh public call for the UK Government to reform existing drug legislation regarding personal use and to change the law to allow people to be "treated and supported rather than criminalised and excluded". This call was explicit that possession of controlled substances with the intention of supplying them to others would still be a criminal offense. In other words, Scottish Government policy seeks to decriminalise personal use (a medical problem) but not to legalise dealing (a criminal matter).

In his recent statement, and on other occasions, Douglas Ross has confused these two separate issues – whether through ignorance or as part of some populist rhetoric. Either way, his intervention hardly helps clarify the public debate.

READ MORE: Anas Sarwar fails to support Scottish drug decriminalisation bid

The Scottish Government also wants UK law to be changed to allow the introduction of supervised drug consumption facilities. Note: Prior to 1964, doctors in the UK were allowed to prescribe heroin to registered users as a recognised way of reducing criminal involvement in the drugs trade. This was changed under pressure from the United States.

Conservative Home Secretary Suella Braverman has rejected both Scottish Government proposals claiming decriminalise drugs for personal use would do “untold damage to our neighbourhoods”. She offered no justification for her refusal.


Despite the hardline stance of the Home Secretary, the police response to drug users in England (as opposed to dealers) has followed the Scottish proposals. Last year the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) came out in favour of decriminalising cannabis and cocaine use in England. 

The National: Suella Braverman

This follows successful pilot “warning and treatment” schemes in Durham and Thames Valley. Instead of prosecuting users of hard drugs, officers will recommend addiction services - dealers, and those who refuse to cooperate, will still be prosecuted. The Home Secretary, on the other hand, has flirted with a “three strikes and you’re out” policy that would see drug users banned from driving and losing their passports.


On the date that Douglas Ross issued his statement, figures were issued by the National Records of Scotland showing that the number of people who died due to drug misuse in 2022 fell by a fifth to the lowest level for five years. This is the first significant drop following several years of record high totals, suggesting that the Scottish Government’s intervention policies may be working. Opiates and opioids, including heroin, morphine and methadone, were involved in eight out of 10 drug-related deaths.

One of the most notable points in the figures is that the bulk of the deaths are among the middle-aged living in vulnerable and deprived communities. In other words, this epidemic reflects the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher era and is caused by hopelessness rather than any lifestyle choice. It is unclear how criminalisation is of any positive help in such a circumstance.

READ MORE: Scotland's drug decriminalisation plan: What is it and could it work?

We might note Ross’s own “Right to Recovery” proposals in this context.  Effectively, Ross is proposing a legal right to residential rehab care for drug addicts. But enforcing such a technical right would require significant additional expenditure on rehab facilities and staff. While that is not to be disdained, Ross has a poor track record on supporting extra spending by the SNP government. Also, Ross might care to explain how criminalising users encourages them to seek rehab, especially among communities where hope has faded.

Regarding more recreational drugs, a report in 2019 indicated that around 500 people a month are caught in possession of cannabis by Scottish police but are routinely released with a warning for possessing small amounts. Effectively this amounts to decriminalisation in practice (but not legalisation). Is Ross opposed to this Police Scotland approach? 


Most reasonable people - not to mention those involved in policing – now recognise that the “war on drugs” initiated first by the Tory government under Edward Heath in the early 1970s has failed.  

The National:

Among senior Tory politicians who admit to having taken cocaine are Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Prince Harry also admits to having used cocaine – a class A drug that carries a maximum seven years in jail for possession. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that decriminalising personal use and treating users from a medical standpoint reduces reoffending and isolates the hardened criminals.

FACT CHECK RATING: This is too serious a matter to play politics. No points for confusing the issues, Mr Ross.