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Decriminalise drug possession, create safe injection sites: MPs

MPs have called for decriminalisation and safe drug consumption rooms.

Report: The Scottish Affairs Committee published its findings on Monday. <strong>Pixabay</strong>
Report: The Scottish Affairs Committee published its findings on Monday. Pixabay

The possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised, according to MPs.

The Scottish Affairs Committee believe the move will help address the root causes of problem drug use after statistics released by the National Records of Scotland in July showed the number of drug-related deaths in the country last year was 1187 – the largest ever recorded and more than double the number a decade ago.

The committee’s report, published on Monday, makes a series of recommendations following an extensive inquiry into drug use in Scotland.

The committee believes the UK Government “must declare a public health emergency and be open to taking radical steps to implement innovative evidence-based solutions if we are to stand a chance of halting Scotland’s spiralling drug crisis”.

The MPs said the UK Government currently treats drugs as a criminal justice matter, but they heard “overwhelmingly” that legal sanctions are “counter-productive”.

They said a public health approach should instead inform Government policy, and that decriminalisation would help challenge key issues such as stigma when it comes to people seeking treatment.

The Department of Health and Social Care should also take over lead responsibility for drugs policy from the Home Office, the report said.

The recommendations come less than two weeks after Westminster’s Health and Social Care Committee also said some drug offences should be decriminalised, saying drug possession for personal use should be a civil matter and not a crime.

Focusing on the issue in Scotland, the new report said legislation should be brought forward to allow safe drug consumption facilities to be set up.

A proposal to establish such a site – where users can take drugs in a safe environment with sterile equipment and medical staff supervision – in Glasgow has been backed by both the city council and the Scottish Government.

But the move has been blocked by the Home Office – an action the MPs expressed “deep regret” over.

While noting such facilities would not be a “silver bullet” to tackling the issue, the committee said they could be a cost-effective and evidence-based solution to Scotland’s drug crisis.

It urged the UK Government to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for a pilot facility, or failing that to devolve drugs legislation to the Scottish Parliament so it can “implement the health approach it deems to be in Scotland’s best interest”.

The report also said the Scottish Government must do more to ensure drug services within its responsibilities are “properly funded and supported”.

It said Scottish Government decisions, such as cutting funding for Alcohol and Drug Partnerships in its 2016/17 Budget, have “made the situation worse”.

The report added: “If the Scottish Government wants to call for more powers to tackle the drug crisis, it must demonstrate that it is doing everything within the powers it already has.”

The single biggest structural driver of problem drug use was found to be poverty and deprivation.

NHS Health Scotland told the committee that drug use disorders were 17 times more prevalent in the country’s most deprived areas, compared with the least deprived.

The report found: “It is not necessarily the case that poverty in itself is a direct driver of problematic drug use; however, those in poverty are more likely to be exposed to additional risk factors, such as unstable home life, unemployment, and adverse childhood experiences which increase the likelihood of a person being predisposed towards problematic substance use.”

Dr Emily Tweed, from the University of Glasgow, stated that the UK Government’s “absolute priority” should be reducing poverty and inequality, which would, in turn, help reduce problem drug use.

SNP MP Pete Wishart, chairman of the committee, said: “Throughout our inquiry we heard tragic accounts of the pain and suffering that problem drug use is causing in Scotland.

“If this number of people were being killed by any other illness, the Government would declare it as a public health issue and act accordingly.

“The evidence is clear – the criminal justice approach does not work.

“Decriminalisation is a pragmatic solution to problem drug use – reducing stigma around drug use and addiction, and encouraging people to seek treatment.

“For too long successive UK Governments have ignored the evidence on how drug policy could be improved.

“The Government must now start listening to the expert advice they are given, starting with our committee’s report, to reduce problematic drug use in Scotland and prevent the tragic loss of life.

“The Scottish Government must also ensure that health services in Scotland are properly funded, and that funding cuts are not worsening the problem.”

The Home Office has insisted it has “no plans” to decriminalise the possession of drugs.

A spokesman stressed “every drug related death is a tragedy” as he said ministers were “concerned about the rate of drug deaths in Scotland”.

But he stated: “The Government has no plans to decriminalise drug possession.

“It would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities.”

The Home Office spokesman also highlighted that “there is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms”, adding that a “range of crimes would be committed in the course of running such a facility, by service users and staff, such as possession of a controlled drug”.

SNP support: The party has unanimously backed a call for control over drugs laws to be devolved to Scotland. Alison Thewliss MP

The Scottish Government welcomed the report’s support for the introduction of a safe drugs consumption room in Glasgow, as part of efforts to reduce deaths there.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The outdated Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be amended to allow us to implement a range of public health focused responses, including the introduction of safe consumption facilities in Glasgow.

“We call on the incoming UK government to amend the act or to devolve those powers to Scotland.”

Despite the lack of support from the UK Government for a supervised drugs consumption facility, the ministers in Scotland will continue to take action to tackle the drugs crisis.

A dedicated drugs death task force has been established “to shape steps to reduce the harms caused by drugs, and advise on further changes in practice, or in the law, which could help save lives,” the spokeswoman said.

She added: “We have invested almost £800m to tackle problem alcohol and drug use since 2008.

“Our 2018 alcohol and drug strategy set out how an additional £20m per annum announced the year before is being used to improve local prevention, treatment, and recovery services in areas all across Scotland.

“In addition we announced through our 2019-20 Programme for Government a further investment of £20m over two years to support local services and provide targeted support.”

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