A FORMER Conservative party leader has called on Boris Johnson’s Government to treat the drugs death crisis as a health emergency – warning that a failure to do so is trapping people "in desperate cycles of dependence and crimes”.

Scotland has the worst drug deaths rate in Europe – with the latest statistics revealing 1,339 people were killed from drugs misuse in 2020 – the worst annual number on record.

The Scottish Government, which has put forward £250 million to try and curb the loss of life, wants the UK Government to stop treating drugs as a hardline criminal matter and instead tackle the crisis as a public health emergency.

But Conservative ministers have reiterated their support for a tough justice approach to illegal drugs.

A former Tory leader has now intervened, piling pressure on the Prime Minister to chance tact.

Writing in the Times, William Hague, said his time as party leader in opposition, and attempt to frame a zero tolerance policy to drugs “collapsed when more than a third of my shadow cabinet admitted to once taking drugs themselves”.

READ MORE: Scotland's drug deaths: 1,339 Scots died in 2020 after drugs misuse

In an appeal to the UK Government, Lord Hague has warned that “many Tories are reluctant, as I was two decades ago, to abandon a ‘tough’ law and order approach”.

Lord Hague pointed to Scotland’s dire record on drug deaths, claiming the “figures have gone off the chart of international comparisons”.

He highlighted Nicola Sturgeon’s claim "we took our eye off the ball” on drug deaths, adding “it’s a sad comment on potential independence when the government can just fail to notice thousands of deaths”.

Lord Hague has pointed to a new strategy being drawn up by UK Government officials, which he said has likely to include “some more treatment of victims along with extra ‘crackdowns’”, stressing “that won’t work”.

The former leader of the opposition highlighted the United States’ ‘war on drugs’, which he said “has been a spectacular failure”.

Lord Hague has called for a serious look at decriminalisation of possession offences, mirroring the success in Portugal where drug deaths have been cut.

He added: “In short, they moved from seeing drug use as a criminal issue to a health issue, achieving a crucial change of culture that brings all relevant agencies and local authorities into working together to rescue the worst cases.

“Portugal has not legalised drugs and still punishes drug-trafficking. But after decriminalisation, all major indicators in a variety of studies have improved, including an 18 per cent fall in the total costs to society after 11 years.

READ MORE: Scotland's record drug deaths 'a scar on the conscience' of the SNP

“By 2010, the number of drug offenders sent to criminal courts had halved. Less law enforcement work will have helped to pay for better treatments. Might this not be worth a try?”

Lord Hague highlighted the Prime Minister’s preferred “tough approach” to tackling drugs, but warned “there’s nothing tough about maintaining our own instinctive desire to crack down on a problem while not learning from other countries, nor about criminalising addicts for their health condition, trapping them in desperate cycles of dependence and crime”.

He added: “Public attitudes are quietly changing: a steadily more open-minded approach is shown by recent polls showing a large majority who favour legalising cannabis.

“At the top of government, the need for fresh ideas is acknowledged but putting growing evidence over long-established instinct still seems to be too much.

“How refreshing it would be if ministers could say, after a terrible pandemic, that on this other devastating health issue they are open to what might work.”

Speaking on a visit to Scotland last week, the Prime Minister stressed he was "more than willing to work with the government of Scotland and authorities at every level" to tackle drug deaths.

He added: "What I am in favour of is helping problem addicts off drugs, helping people off their dependence, but I am also in favour of a tough approach."

The SNP's Drugs Policy Minister, Angela Constance, said the Scottish Government has an "open mind" to decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.

She added: "I have always been clear that this is a public health emergency, that we cannot arrest our way out of a drugs death crisis and that we need to be reducing the demand for drugs as well as the supply.

"We need to prevent people from going into the criminal justice system in the first place."

SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said: "This is a welcome intervention and the UK Government must at long last heed the warnings.

"The recent figures on drug deaths were heartbreaking and it is vital that the necessary steps are taken to tackle this crisis effectively.

"I previously brought forward a Bill in Westminster which seeks to declare problem drug use a public health emergency, and ramps up pressure on the UK Government to take urgent steps to address the issue.

"People are dying while the UK Government continues to criminalise and stigmatise some of the most vulnerable in our society.

"The UK Government cannot bury its head in the sand any longer. If it fails to act then it must devolve the relevant powers to Holyrood so that the Scottish Parliament can take the necessary steps to protect citizens.

"With the limited powers it has, the Scottish Government has already committed £250 million over the next five years to tackle the crisis, and the SNP remains firmly committed to the introduction of medically supervised safe consumption facilities."