This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Decriminalisation of drugs – all drugs – would draw so much poison from society. Its chief benefit is obvious: an immediate halt to the ghastly revolving door of addiction, imprisonment, homelessness and death.

Money spent on jail can go towards rehabilitation and health care, resources woefully underfunded.

So the Scottish Government must be applauded for its bravery in calling for decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use. It’s a move which everyone who understands the world of crime and addiction knows is the only intelligent step.

Yet it will inevitably enrage right-wing newspapers. One can imagine the headlines that will be written: ‘Now the SNP wants to hook your kids on heroin.’

The reverse is true. Rather than hooking anyone on drugs, decriminalisation is a public health response which makes harm reduction the chief priority. It will save lives. Given Scotland’s appalling level of drug deaths, is there any alternative?

Transform, Britain’s independent drug charity, says that post-decriminalisation in Portugal in 2001, drug-related deaths “remained below the EU average”, as have rates of drug use. “Portugal has some of the lowest usage rates in Europe among those between the ages of 15-34,” Transform says.

In 2001, Portugal had 1287 new HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting. Portugal had over 50% of all new HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting in the EU in 2001 and 2002 – despite having just 2% of the EU’s population. In 2019, with only 16 new diagnoses, Portugal only had 1.68% of the EU total.

Portugal shows what happens when politicians prioritise health over crime.

Niven Rennie was one of Scotland’s leading police officers, and headed the acclaimed Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. He recently told me far too many “young people have no hope or opportunity”. Kids without hope, Rennie said, use drugs to “take the edge off, and we judge and punish them, and the prison population just gets bigger. 

“How do we change that? … What we currently do doesn’t work. We need a fresh approach. Locking kids up is certainly wrong – being wholly opposed to trialling a different response is wrong. We need a more compassionate, educated approach.”

The Herald: Niven Rennie was one of Scotland's leading police officers before heading up the acclaimed Scottish Violence Reduction UnitNiven Rennie was one of Scotland's leading police officers before heading up the acclaimed Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (Image: Newsquest)

The “nub of the issue,” Rennie says, “is young kids with potential who simply from birth are set on a path from which they’ve no escape – a lifetime of poverty … Life becomes a struggle, every day a battle to survive … The next step is misusing alcohol or drugs, getting involved in criminality, becoming a member of a gang … Throughout my life as a police officer, I saw many such young people. We arrested them and they were sent to prison, labelled.

“For many, that becomes a life sentence. Once they have a conviction they find it hard to get a job. I always knew there was something wrong, even the stupidity of the cost of prison, compared to the cost of providing services to assist and prevent crime, made no sense to me.”

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It’s clear that decriminalisation is the only sane path. But one giant hurdle stands in the way: Westminster. The Scottish Government is now asking the UK government to change reserved drug laws so anyone found in personal possession can be “treated and supported rather than criminalised and excluded”. However, the Home Office has said there’s no plans for decriminalisation.

Given recent legislative battles between Edinburgh and London, this matter is too important to turn into a political bun-fight. Both governments must calmly sit down and talk. In the end, if London cannot see that the path Edinburgh wants to take is the safe, wise and humane one, then it is clearly putting petty politics above saving lives.

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