The law-enforcement section of the Scottish Government’s new drugs strategy will recommend diverting more problem users away from prosecution if they’re caught in possession of illegal substances, the Sunday Herald has learned.

The existing strategy published in 2008 is under review and the refreshed approach – which is due to be released next month – is expected to include the “explicit aim” of pushing drug addicts into recovery programmes instead of the criminal justice system.

Drugs policy is reserved to Westminster and the UK Government has no plans to change the law on drugs possession, but the Scottish Government has responsibility for policing and prosecution.

Scottish Government adviser Dr Roy Robertson said this week the "Road to Recovery" strategy should “support rather than penalise” people caught with small amounts of illegal substances, a call backed by Police Scotland's substance misuse lead, Chief Inspector Allan Elderbrant.

The comments prompted MSP Annie Wells, the Scottish Conservative spokesperson on public health, to accuse the SNP of adopting a “soft-touch approach” to illegal drugs.

The 2008 strategy has an entire chapter dedicated to law enforcement and one source close to the discussions suggested the Scottish Government looked at “dropping” the section.

The source close to Police Scotland, who asked not to be named, said: “The Scottish Government has considered quietly dropping the enforcement section when the new strategy is published, with the explicit aim of diverting more people away from prosecution and the criminal justice system.”

They added that this was “disquieting” for Police Scotland.

When Elderbrant was asked if he would back changes allowing officers to refer people directly to health services rather than the courts, he said: "Yes, if that opportunity was afforded to us and if that change did come, then yes, that's probably the route that we would go down."

However, he warned that officers must currently act on existing legislation – the Misuse of Drugs Act – which can see drug users jailed for up to seven years for possession of class A drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and heroin. The penalty for possession of class B drugs is up to five years behind bars, while people caught in possession of class C drugs can face prison sentences of up to two years.

David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said Elderbrant’s comments are an indication of a growing consensus that “we shouldn’t be pursuing small time users who are living sad and desperate lives, because it’s only adding to the court costs and prison costs”.

“It’s a view that’s widely shared now,” he said.

Liddell also suggested the Scottish Government should shift policy and divert drug users away from prosecution.

“Changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act are not required to stop the prosecution of people for the possession of small amount of drugs as has been proposed – that requires only a change in Scottish policing and Crown Office procedures as has already happened with cannabis possession in Scotland.”

But Liddell warned there is a danger the debate about drugs policy “becomes entangled with political questions about the constitution”.

“If this stops us changing our drug strategy, it would have significant negative consequences for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people and their families,” he added.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie welcomed Liddell’s comments and said: “We need a policy that prevents unnecessary deaths, alleviates the burden on our NHS and frees up the justice system to tackle the people and organised crime groups producing and dealing drugs.”

The most recent drug-related deaths figures for Scotland were published last year and show there was a 23 per cent rise when figures for 2015 and 2016 are compared. There were 867 drug-related deaths in 2016, with figures for 2017 due to be released in the summer.

A spokesman for Police Scotland insisted the law enforcement chapter will not be dropped when the new strategy is released but he admitted the Scottish Government has yet to confirm the content.

The spokesman said: “The chapter is not going to be dropped but the strategy is still in draft form and we don't know what it will look like, or what the policing section will contain.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said the strategy will “first and foremost” focus on the health and social needs of those who suffer from problem drug use.

“We welcome Police Scotland’s comments this week on the importance of adopting a health approach to support this, and we have held a number of discussions with them to consider how they can contribute to a health focused approach as part of the refreshed strategy,” the spokesman said.

“Problem drug and alcohol use can no longer be treated in isolation. Our refreshed strategy will ensure a wide range of complex health and social needs of all individuals are taken into account.”

The spokesman added that an additional £20 million a year will be provided to support this work until 2021.


By Dave Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum

Scotland has the vast majority of the powers required to significantly improve our response to problem drug use and in particular impact on the tragic loss of life through drug use we are seeing. At the moment we are spending too much of our resources on what might be described as reactive spend. For example, government figures show we are spending increasing amounts on unplanned hospital stays for people with drug problems and this is projected to increase further over the coming years. We also spend large sums on criminal justice interventions including prison. Proactive spend is to invest in better treatment, support and primary care services that intervene earlier.

So, we have the power and the money. What we need is the will and the vision to make a step change in how we work with people to help them overcome their drug and other problems. This is my hope for the new strategy to be announced in the summer – that Scotland will have a world-leading evidence-based humane drugs policy.

A drug problem is not a lifestyle choice or a sign of moral failure or weak character. Problem drug use is rooted in disadvantage, inequality and trauma – the very things which should be a concern and focus of community and political action. Scotland is deluding itself if it has a self-image of being inclusive and valuing equalities – unless we can include this group of vulnerable people. I hope the new strategy will challenge Scotland to address this stigma and drop easy and lazy stereotypes and start to view people with a drug problem primarily as people and as the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers of hundreds of thousands of Scots.

The number of people with a drug problem has not changed in recent years. So, the same number of people are moving on from a drug problem or sadly dying as are developing a problem. Clearly, we need to prevent future problem drug use. We should follow the evidence – drug problems are often based in adverse events in childhood and how these were handled. We need to protect children and young people and better support them when bad things happen. We need to engage young people with mental health services before they start self—medicating with street drugs. This means investing in services and promoting understanding of the crucial role this work has.

For people who already have a drug problem, we need to minimise the harms that they have to recover from and maximise what they can recovery to. In terms of harms, we don’t have to look to far too to see where the challenges lie – large numbers of people with the Hepatitis C virus and 867 overdose deaths in a year and an HIV outbreak involving 120 people. Expanding and improving drug treatment is key. Easily accessible and evidence-based high-quality services are required but also we must contextualise drug treatment. This is not a medical matter only. What people need is positive experiences with other services – housing, money advice, health, education, training and employment services.

To do this they may need support and advocacy. For too long drug services have had to work in isolation without support from other mainstream services, including mental health services. For too long drug workers have been stretched monitoring people’s compliance with a treatment regime and working with people’s crises to be able to offer wider supports that help address their other issues and challenges.

In terms of medication we need a spectrum of substitution programmes including methadone. Methadone is not suited to some people and people should be able to switch between medications including diamorphine, buprenorphine and potentially other opioids. People should be on doses that eliminate the need to use street drugs and be empowered to vary these doses in response to progress and setbacks as they occur.

However, the transformative change will occur when mainstream services are encouraged to engage with people with a drug problem around all their other issues. This is the last group of people about whom it is still socially acceptable to voice the most outrageous prejudice. A start would be to talk about and treat those with drug problems as people.