SCOTLAND must start the debate on decriminalising drugs, campaigners, MSPs and former government advisers have said.

The call follows an announcement by the Irish government that it plans a “radical culture shift” which will see possession of drugs decriminalised in ordered to focus on offering helping to addicts and users rather than punishing them with criminal convictions and prison.

As the call came, the Scottish Government also told the Sunday Herald that it was reaffirming its wish for Holyrood to take responsibility over drug laws, which are currently reserved to Westminster.

Last week Ireland’s drugs minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said drug users would be able to inject in specially designated rooms in Dublin from next year. A government report also proposed that while it would remain a crime to profit from drugs, users would no longer be criminalised.

The move comes amid a growing global discussion over the efficacy of the ‘war on drugs’ over the past few decades. Over the past ten years a number of countries have introduced some form of decriminalisation, including Portugal, Chile, the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Next year a special session of the United Nations General Assembly will be held to look at the world’s drug problem, including discussions on policies such as decriminalisation and legal regulation.

Latest figures show in 2014 the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland rose to its highest level since records began, with a total of 613 fatalities.

There were 31,632 convictions for possession of drugs in Scotland in 2014-15. The number of crimes involving possession of drugs with intent to supply was around a tenth of that figure at 3,700.

Supporters of decriminalisation say it would make it more likely for users to get treatment if needed, reduce criminal justice costs and prevent many drug users from the devastating impact of a criminal conviction on their life.

Mike McCarron, a former Scottish government adviser and member of campaign group Transform Drug Policy Foundation Scotland, said there had been little discussion around decriminalisation in Scotland.

But he added: “There has been so much change going on in the world over the past two or three years. So I think Scotland now probably would be wise to start talking about these issues.”

McCarron, a former member of the advisory committee for the Scottish Government’s drug strategy, said he had believed twenty years ago that criminalisation and blanket prohibition of drugs was contributing to the harm. But he said at that time it was impossible to talk about it publicly – and only now was it being discussed openly.

He said Scotland could also look at whether Holyrood could use any current powers to introduce ideas such as drug treatment rooms and prescription heroin.

McCarron added: “There are still large numbers of offenders who are recreational users and still a lot of people being criminalised. Mental health difficulties, chronic mental health problems combined with issues like homelessness, unemployment, broken relationships are the kind of situations which are the underlying reasons why people have drug problem. So if you are being criminalised as well, that is adding to your problems.”

While the Scottish Government does want powers over drug laws, a senior government source stressed that this did not mean it was seeking to change policy.

However SNP MSP Christine Grahame, convenor of Holyrood’s justice committee, said she believed a debate on decriminalisation was needed. “We should have this debate as people who are users of drugs and are trapped in it are victims.

“While we keep it a criminal offence then people will hide what they are doing. The reason I think it is important for Scotland is there are so many within our prisons, so many children who are brought up in homes where there is drug using going on and are then blighted for life, we deal with those things, but we don’t deal with the causes.”

Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, said he believed there was a lack of willingness for politicians in Scotland to engage with the issue.

“Because Scotland at the moment doesn’t have the legal ability to take a change of direction here, there has been a lot less willingness to start raising the issue,” he said.

“I think it is a failure of our political debate and it is one that has a really tangible impact on people’s lives. It is a source of great frustration that Scotland isn’t willing or ready or able to have this debate at the level that is required.”

Harvie said the Green party had submitted written evidence to the Smith Commission highlighting drug laws as an issue which should be devolved, but it was not covered in the commission’s report.

He added: “If the Smith Commission had agreed this should be a devolved issue, there clearly would be an opportunity to begin to take evidence on what the long-term impact has been of the current legal framework, what the consequences are of leaving this industry in the hands of gangsters and what the arguments for and against a change of direction would be. The criminalisation agenda globally has failed and in time I have very little doubt there will be a move away from it.”

David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said there was now a greater willingness across a range of organisations globally to consider issues around decriminalisation – even among more “zero tolerance” groups.

He added: “As an organisation we have tended to focus on what we would see as the more important issues - around poverty and inequality and the concentration of drug problems in our poorest communities. In some respects, the whole issue of drug law reform has been a bit of a diversion from some of the more pressing issues.

“That is not to say at the same time that we wouldn’t be supportive of the need to start to look at those issues.”

However any moves to shift Scotland’s stance on tackling the drug problem towards decriminalisation will not be met with unanimous support.

Scottish Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former director of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said how Scotland currently deals with alcohol was not a good example of what might happen if drugs were decriminalised more widely.

He said: “The cost to the public purse of those who are problematic because of drugs is already hugely significant and would become a more difficult problem under a decriminalised culture.

“Given our experience of the health service and the way they are coping now, I am sure the last thing it wants is more patients coming in through to the door who suffer from substance abuse and other related ailments.”

He said efforts to tackle drugs should be made outwith the areas law enforcement and legislation – for example by boosting employment prospects and increasing wages.

He said: “I think you would find our problems with drugs would begin to melt away if people had an active life and a purpose. I don’t think there is any lack of evidence that links the devastation of steel, shipyards, railworks at Springburn, with the growth of heroin and cocaine going through the late 80s and 90s into the present day.

“Unemployment, poverty and a lack of opportunity has created our current drug problem and of course the supply of drugs by criminal gangs who see the profit in it.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs."