By Helen Mills

“What we’re doing is working,” is the UK government’s standard reply to calls for a more informed, harm-reducing response to drugs. It’s a stance that seems increasingly out of touch with evidence, the international stage and what the agencies tasked with responding to our current drug laws – the police and health care professionals – find themselves grappling with.

A fifth of all HIV and hepatitis C virus infections amongst people who inject drugs in Scotland are estimated to occur in the six-month period following offenders' release from prison. It’s one example of the perverse outcomes from the UK's current reliance on criminal justice to respond to problematic drug use. An approach defended as ‘tough’ at protecting the public from dangerous substances fails to reduce drug use and is paradoxically the cause of much harm itself. The Home Office’s own research reached the similar conclusions: “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The essential question being asked in many quarters is no longer simply if the UK's approach to drugs should change, but what should we better do instead?

Portugal offers one alternative. Respond to drug use as a public health and education challenge not a criminal justice problem. For over 15 years the possession of all drugs for personal use has been decriminalised. The Portuguese government coupled this with plans to double investment in health care, including spend on treatment, preventative education and reintegration support. This bold approach has been credited with helping Portugal significantly reduce its late 1990s HIV and Aids epidemic.


In 2014 the minister with responsibility for drug policy in the UK, Norman Baker, resigned, in part citing the impasse between evidence about effective drugs regulation and Home Office policy. The head of the government’s advisory committee on drugs, David Nutt, was dismissed five years prior to this. Nutt had shared evidence on relative drug harms; evidence which wasn’t in keeping with the A, B C classification of drugs. Rather than isolated incidents, these events seem symptomatic of a fundamentally compromised, contradictory drugs approach. There’s another interesting comparison to Portugal here – which has had the same national drugs coordinator for 10 years.

Canada is the most recent addition to a diverse list of states that are reconsidering their reliance on prohibition and criminalisation to manage drug harms. Is there evidence of a similar air of change here?

Police Scotland is one of a number of police forces in the UK which have decided to no longer prosecute cannabis possession for personal use. Last month saw a 10-minute rule bill brought before the Westminster parliament proposing the creation of a legal market for cannabis. One recent poll suggests the public is almost evenly split regarding whether cannabis should be regulated through licensed premises rather than prohibited.

The most recent legislation on drugs, the Psychoactive Substances Act, the British government’s response to the challenges of hitherto ‘legal highs’, makes it an offence to produce, buy or offer all psychoactive substances with a few exceptions such as caffeine and alcohol. But it doesn’t criminalise the possession of these substances (at least outside custodial establishments). For all its well documented faults, it at least attempts to avoid criminalising a generation of young people.

However, whilst these may be signs of some movement, they are largely changes confined to discussion and practice about one drug; cannabis, rather than a debate about our drug laws more broadly.

HeraldScotland: Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill will outline prison reforms today.

Prior to standing down Kenny MacAskill, as justice secretary, pictured, called for problematic drug use to be considered a health problem for which there could be a public health response rather than a law and order one. ‘A conspiracy of silence’ is his take on the current stance by politicians.

There isn’t an easy answer to resolving drug harms. But this doesn’t mean we should accept the facile ‘tough is safe’ line on drugs. MacAskill was one of the most senior politicians from any of the UK’s nations to speak out on this issue. To better understand the role drug regulation plays in drug use, its impact on the health and welfare of all citizens, including drug users, as well as the violence and money generated by current drug markets; we need more politicians willing to do the same.

Helen Mills

Research Associate, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies