Government drug group will consider decriminalisation

Lord Advocate confirms de facto decriminalisation could be achieved without Westminster action

Tuesday 9th July 2019

Calls to decriminalise drug use in Scotland have been given a boost after the Scottish Government’s Public Health Minister confirmed a recently established government taskforce set up to investigate drug deaths solutions will consider the reform.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s chief legal officer suggested decriminalisation could be achieved without UK-wide changes, by asking Police Scotland to extend an existing warning system used for cannabis to other substances.

Last week the Scottish Government announced a taskforce to be headed by Professor Catriona Matheson would examine whether drugs powers need to be devolved.

Although the taskforce’s remit includes looking at changes to “current health and social care practice” and how to bring in a public health approach across all services, including the justice system, it makes no mention of decriminalisation.

This morning, speaking to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, Minister Joe FitzPatrick said he would “fully expect” the taskforce to look at all options, including decriminalisation.

He went on to praise the approach taken in Portugal, which removed criminal penalties for drug use and possession of drugs for personal use in 2001. HIV rates and overdose deaths fell dramatically while the number of people entering treatment increased significantly.  

“Had Portugal not made the changes they made about 20 years ago, then all the trajectories would have suggested they would be in a similar position to Scotland now, if they didn’t make what was at that time a particularly bold move that has saved many, many lives,” Mr FitzPatrick said.

“I don’t think we are ever going to want to say there is a model from this country that’s best and just plop it here in Scotland,” he continued. “We want to look at the best evidence from around the world and see how that can be adapted to our particular frameworks, which is why my taskforce has a range of experts that I hope would be able to do that.”

Earlier in the session, the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, appeared to confirm “de facto decriminalisation” could be achieved in Scotland without needing Westminster to act.

Police Scotland, which receives advice from the Lord Advocate, currently operates a recorded warning system instead of prosecution for individuals caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.

Paul Masterton, the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, asked whether “in terms of theoretical possibility” there was nothing to stop Mr Wolfe “extending the applicability of the police warning scheme to the possession of other substances?”

“The scope of the warning scheme is a matter for me and I can exercise judgement in terms of the extent to which police officers can give discretion,” the lawyer responded.

Later, in response to questioning from committee chair Pete Wishart, Mr Wolffe said: “In the reporting of crime the police are obliged to act in accordance with my directions. Prosecutors exercise judgement within policies I lay down. These are matters which are entirely for me.”

But he added asking the police to turn a “blind eye” to safer consumption rooms by choosing not to enforce certain drugs laws around the facility would “not be an appropriate approach.”