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Scottish MPs call for decriminalisation of drug possession as death toll grows

The possession of small amounts of drugs should be decriminalised to tackle Scotland’s drug deaths crisis, an influential Westminster report has found.

MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee urged the UK Government to take the step as part of a radical approach to combat the “relentless” rise in drug fatalities.

They also recommended the UK Government changes the law to allow a so-called “shooting gallery” to be established in Glasgow where drug-users can inject safely.

The report Problem Drug Use in Scotland was published after shocking statistics revealed Scottish drug deaths reached an all-time high of 1,187 last year.

Scotland’s drug-death rate that is nearly three times that of the UK as a whole and higher than any EU country and the US.

The MPs called on the UK Government to “declare a public health emergency” and said drugs should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one.

The report also criticised the Scottish Government for failing to do more to combat drugs and said MSP were “particularly concerned” to hear of the impact that funding cuts had had on alcohol and drugs partnerships.

It said there was a “strong case” for decriminalising possession of drugs, arguing that doing so on a UK-wide basis would enable efforts to be focussed on preventing the supply of illicit substances and treatment.

“We recommend that the UK Government decriminalises the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use across the whole of the UK and should consult on how this could be rolled out in practice,” the report said.

Committee chairman Pete Wishart, of the SNP, said MPs had heard “tragic accounts of the pain and suffering that problem drug use is causing in Scotland” during its investigations.

“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.”

The MPs heard evidence that the case for a safe consumption facility in Glasgow was the “most compelling in Europe”. Although the report warned it should not be regarded as a “silver bullet” in the battle against drugs.

Such facilities, however, could offer a way of getting drug users to engage with services that could help them kick the habit.

The report said it was “deeply regrettable” that the UK Government had blocked plans for a Glasgow facility but concluded the UK Government made the legal changes necessary to pilot such a scheme.

Committee member David Duguid, the Tory Banff and Buchan MP, said: “There is much more that the SNP government can be doing on drug policy. There is a real crisis that requires a change in approach and more investment in rehabilitation and recovery services. But that does not mean we should have different laws in different parts of the UK.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “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.

“There is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms as 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.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We welcome this important report from the Scottish Affairs Committee. It supports our view that what Scotland faces in terms of drug-related deaths is an emergency and that 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.”

Hannah’s story

Hannah Snow

Hannah Snow began taking drugs when she was just 11, and has been jailed several times.

The 26-year-old, from Aberdeen, was one of several reformed drug-users to give evidence to the committee on her experiences.

Ms Snow argued that criminal sanctions were “not a deterrent” because they did not address the root causes of substance use.

“What benefits are you getting from sending a known drug user into prison to do a drug sentence, who will get released to do the same thing?” she asked MPs.

“Enforce an order that has to put them through a recovery-based programme, instead of putting them into a criminal procedure programme where the cycle just starts again. If you go up in court for drug use, and you are then forced to go to a recovery programme, you have a better chance of changing your life in that than you do of changing your life in prison.”

Ms Snow said she began using drugs to block out the fear and anger that she felt as a child.

As a “vulnerable and confused” teenager, she took drugs to “fit in” and feel part of something. For 13 years, her lifestyle was dominated by drugs down to the clothes she wore, the music she listened to and the people she hung out with.

Her cannabis use turned to heroin and she was locked up just after her 16th birthday as a result of drug-related crime.

The next decade was spent in and out of prison or in homeless accommodation – but sometimes she was forced to sleep rough. She was also put in a residential home where her drug use got worse.

Eventually she phoned her brother and asked for help, and with the support of her family she is now a college student and has a job.