SCOTLAND’S Drugs Policy Minister Elena Whitham on Friday launched a call for the UK Government to decriminalise drugs for personal use or devolve powers to the Scottish Parliament to take this step, a step that would stop people who use drugs receiving a criminal record for simple possession.

There are two reasons why this is important. One, most people who use drugs do so without any negative impacts on their lives. A criminal record can be more damaging than the drug use. Secondly, for people experiencing problems with their drug use, this would allow them to ask for help without fear of being punished.

Decriminalisation allows easier access to treatment such as opioid-agonist therapy (OAT) including methadone and buprenorphine, which is a key protective factor against fatal overdose. A recent study published in the Lancet from Professor Andrew McAuley et al looking at opioid therapy in Scotland concluded that rates of drug-related deaths more than tripled for those not on OAT.

When Whitham announced the call to the UK Government, she was flanked by Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy – which was hosting a three-day event in Edinburgh – and former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, also a commission member.

Both spoke of international evidence to support decriminalisation and things like drug checking, which is completely legal now in New Zealand. Overdose prevention centres (OPCs) that Switzerland opened 37 years ago are no longer considered radical. In fact they are a standard part of services now operating in 16 countries.

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Madame Dreifuss highlighted that in the 1980s the Swiss had major issues with drug deaths and harms, with high levels of HIV transmissions. However, opening OPCs coupled with widespread diamorphine or heroin-assisted treatment have brought great results. Drug deaths are rare now and HIV transmission has been practically eradicated in Switzerland.

However, within minutes of the call to either decriminalise or devolve the power to Scotland to do so, the UK Government came out with the usual hardline stance. Tory MSPs, along with so-called recovery activists, went straight to Twitter to make false claims about the Scottish Government wanting to “legalise heroin and crack”.

To be fair, that was the expected response from the current UK Government, which seems to think there is nothing wrong with drug deaths in England going up consistently every year now and 17 people a day dying on average across the whole of the UK.

One of the biggest shocks to me was the response from Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who said: “I find it quite stunning that this would be a priority for the Scottish Government when we’re here today talking about the Tory mortgage bombshell.”

That was a shocking statement when we consider thousands of people are losing loved ones every year. I was also shocked by the response of Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, who seems content with continuing to punish rather than support people who are having problems with drug use.

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The SNP are not without blame. They led the way on the doomed-for-failure drug-free utopia strategy the “Road to Recovery” in 2008, two years before the Tory government launched a similar strategy.

They also oversaw the stopping of prescription benzodiazepines. That led to the influx of “street benzos” which have had a devastating impact. More recently in 2016, budgets to alcohol and drug partnerships were cut, leading to a 27% rise in deaths in a single year in 2018.

However, they have now committed to an extra £50 million investment each year and are clearly looking to follow the evidence rather than an outdated war-on-drugs ideology fostered by the 52-year-old UK Misuse of Drugs Act which is not fit for purpose.

With the terrible stance taken by the Tories and Labour, the SNP must be brave and things can be done now. The Cranstoun drug DIVERT in operation across the West-Midlands can stop people getting a criminal record in the current frameworks. Diamorphine treatment needs a mass expansion – it has worked for people where all other treatments have failed.

We have offered a model to Scottish Government at a third of the cost of the Glasgow model meaning it could be rolled out further and faster. And, of course, overdose prevention centres – I proved they can run under current legislation.

Time for talk has come and gone. In key locations across major cities like Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh not only will these save lives, they will also save money. We know the evidence. There are fewer hospital admissions, less discarded equipment, fewer ambulance callouts and more people able to access support services.

If the Scottish Government really wants change, it won’t sit on its hands and wait for Westminster permission, it will invest in these core harm-reduction services now.

Scotland is tired of the devastation. I am tired of losing friends and family to preventable overdose. Let’s get on and do it. What will Westminster do, send in the tanks?

Peter Krykant is campaigns lead at Cranstoun