Scotland has a drug problem. Over the past two decades, overdoses have soared and, in 2020, the country recorded its largest ever number of drug-related deaths. 

In response, medical experts, police forces, and politicians are considering innovative, evidence-based approaches to reducing harm.

As the effects of prohibition continue to take its toll, drug policy in Scotland has started taking steps towards reform. 

To avoid further loss of life, an increasing number of expert and political bodies have been calling for drug consumption rooms that allow users to take drugs under medical supervision.

They have also been discussing the increased implementation of diversion schemes, whereby people caught with drugs are diverted towards treatment and education, rather than receiving punishment. 

Such measures are currently being deployed furtively, as a form of de facto decriminalisation.


(Jake Shepherd)

This low-key approach comes despite academic research which has shown they can operate successfully, improving the health and wellbeing of drug users. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the UK Government continues to reject Scotland’s proposals for change. 

Drugs policy should be based on evidence. When looking at that evidence, it becomes clear that other alternatives are possible.

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Not only are they feasible, but they are being implemented, right now, in countries throughout the world

The experiences of those places provide important lessons on the effects of more liberal drug laws, and the benefits they provide to drug users and wider society. 

In research recently published by the Social Market Foundation, I explored different countries’ experiences of cannabis reform and compared them against the UK’s current prohibition regime.


In the same way that our drugs control system renders Scotland’s attempts to solve its drug deaths emergency taboo, when it comes to cannabis, Britain’s laws may actually be creating harm – rather than preventing it. 

In the UK, it is illegal to possess, grow, distribute, or sell cannabis.

However, the drug poses no significant risk of death and it is, when compared to other illegal or legal drugs, such as alcohol, relatively harmless.

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Meanwhile, users of cannabis are criminalised, with offences disproportionately recorded among minority groups. The lucrative cannabis market remains underground, controlled by criminals. 

Prohibition is not fit for purpose, and the UK is falling behind others on its cannabis policy.

A growing number of governments are starting to recognise cannabis as a public health, rather than criminal, issue, and are convinced by the economic potential of regulated markets and avoiding the ever-costly “war on drugs”.

The UK could learn an awful lot from their experiences. 

From a Scottish perspective, perhaps the best example of progressive drug policy lies with Portugal, where all drugs are decriminalised.


Their approach has shifted from being punitive to a health-led approach and, as a result, the country has seen some significant improvements. 

Drug deaths and those imprisoned for drugs have reduced considerably, while the number of people receiving drug addiction treatment has increased. 

Portugal has one of Europe’s lowest rates of drug use, and it has few overdose deaths.

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With regards to cannabis, the picture is much more ambiguous – it is unclear whether consumption has meaningfully increased or not – but the lesson worth taking from this is that the Portuguese approach to drug policy, and hard drugs in particular, represents a positive example of what can be achieved by liberalisation. 

A second example can be found in Spain. As a decentralised state, autonomous communities are able to shape their own approaches to drug policy.

This has allowed for cannabis social clubs to be set up locally, as a way for people to access and use cannabis in safe consumption spaces. 

Spain’s membership-based clubs are said to have several benefits, including limiting the availability, quantity, and strength of cannabis, as well as minimising profit-motivated efforts to increase use. 

Spain appears to have seen a reduction in the consumption of cannabis since introducing its social club model, particularly in the Catalonia region.

While cannabis is very different to other drugs, for example opiates, opioids, or benzodiazepines – the most common causes of drug overdose in Scotland – the fact that safe consumption spaces work and have the capacity to reduce harm is important to bear in mind. 

Of all countries’ cannabis policies examined in my research – those belonging to Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Canada, and the US states of Colorado and Oregon – each have showed themselves to be effective in reducing harm. With a degree of political will, any of these models could conceivably work in the UK.

Decriminalisation approaches have shown themselves to be effective in reducing minor cannabis offences and making drug use safer.

The same can be said for legalisation frameworks, which, through legitimate cannabis retail markets, have the added advantage of generating economic activity and increased tax revenues. 

In Canada, the cannabis sector contributed the equivalent to
£26.4 billion to national GDP within its first three years, and brought in £9.2bn worth of tax revenue. 

This is an enormous amount of money available to be spent on public services. In Oregon, where cannabis is legalised but other drugs are decriminalised, 25 per cent of taxed revenue goes directly to alcohol and drug services. 

Without devolved powers, any attempt at a renewed drugs policy for Scotland will be difficult.

But by looking abroad, it is clear that other, better alternatives are obtainable.

There is already considerable public and expert appetite for reform, with the view of saving people from death, other health harms, and life-changing criminal records. 

The UK Government must also consider a review of its drug laws. The future of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people depends on it. 

Jake Shepherd is a researcher with the Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think-tank