The Church of Scotland has elected a new ambassador who believes possession of drugs should be decriminalised.
Rev Iain Greenshields said he was “honoured” to become the next moderator of the General Assembly and said addiction was among the “great many challenges facing society”.
The 67-year-old minister of St Margaret’s Community Church in Dunfermline, Fife, said locking up people who are often “self-medicating” to cope with psychological challenges did not work and instead they should be treated in high-quality residential rehabilitation centres.
In September, Scotland’s Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain QC announced people found in possession of Class A drugs for personal use could now be issued with a recorded police warning instead of facing automatic prosecution.
Rev Greenshields welcomed the change, saying those suffering from substance abuse issues were “desperate” and needed “the best rehabilitation support possible”.
The minister spent eight years serving as a chaplain at the former Longriggend Young Offenders’ Institution in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, and nearby Shotts Prison.
“My view on decriminalisation is a personal one and it is not the official position of the church,” he said.
“I realise that some people will throw their hands up in horror but I am not saying I support drugs, I am just being realistic and pragmatic about the situation.”
More than 1300 people died in Scotland last year as a result of drug misuse – the highest annual figure on record.
It represented a 5% increase on 2019’s statistics and the largest number since records began in 1996.
It was also the seventh year in a row that drug-related deaths hit record levels.
There were 722 suspected drug deaths in Scotland in the first six months of this year, according to official statistics.
Rev Greenshields said: “It will require extensive investment in services but I firmly believe that if you can send someone to prison for a year, why can’t you send them to rehab for the same length of time as an alternative?”
The Church of Scotland is grappling with falling membership and minister numbers which has seen it make “hard decisions” about closing buildings and congregations.
“Ultimately the greatest need in our society is the spiritual vacuum that exists in the lives of so many,” the new moderator said.
“We cannot force people to believe but we can make belief relevant, understandable, attractive and real to people.”