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Drug decriminalisation move is a tiny step in the right direction

Scotland took one step closer to drug decriminalisation this week.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain announced that possession of Class A drugs would no longer lead automatically to prosecution.

The move grants police more discretion to hand out warnings in the face of a drug crisis that has seen deaths increase year on year since 2013.

The move, it is hoped, will reduce the number of people with substance misuse problems being drawn into the criminal justice system when what they arguably require is access to treatment.

There may, of course, be some drawbacks too.

Thankfully, most politicians, former police constables and commentators opposing these measures have, as of yet, failed to make a decent argument along those lines, though we wait in breathless anticipation for one to emerge.

In Portugal – touted rightly as a global leader for it’s health-based approach, of which decriminalisation formed a central plank – it’s been two decades since radical reforms came into effect.

The achievements are undeniable – drug use as well as drug-related deaths remain below the EU average and the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs has fallen from 40 per cent to 15 per cent.

While the problem in every country continues to evolve, requiring constant vigilance and reform to manage, it is clear that a public health rather than a public order approach is necessary.

In Scotland, a move away from the notion you can punish people out of addiction is long overdue.

If the threat of jail provided a sufficient incentive to stop using or dealing drugs, our prisons wouldn’t be full of addicts and our streets wouldn’t be flowing with substances.

But this announcement must form part of a broader strategy, like Portugal.

On its own – without adequate service provision, wider and faster access to treatment, and serious action on social inequalities in education, health, and housing – the risk is that the drug crisis will not only continue to deteriorate but also become even more visible in communities.

While funding has now been increased for services as well as wider access to residential treatment, questions remain as to how well this money is filtering through.

As some have noted, drug possession is not always the catalyst for prosecution but rather it’s the crimes people commit to obtain money for drugs that land them in the cells. More needs to be done to make sure the net is being cast wide enough here, or there is a risk this move may amount to tokenism.

Some are also concerned that without a wholesale replumbing of the drugs sector – where the same orthodoxies have prevailed for decades, despite year-on-year increases in deaths since 2013 – then potential to make a dent in not only drug deaths, but the number of people in active addiction, may not be fully realised. I agree.

But as hesitant as many rightly are to rejoice, given the scale of death we’ve seen, this announcement must surely be a tiny
step in the right direction.

Choice words aren’t enough for addicts

While addiction presents outwardly as a choice, there is an involuntary aspect to how a person with a drug addiction thinks and behaves.

Consider conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome, MS and Parkinson’s disease, or mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

There was a time when these were poorly misunderstood and sufferers were subjected not only to poor quality healthcare but public stigma and even bigotry and abuse.

Addiction is first and foremost a problem centring in the mind.

While to the average onlooker addiction seems like an expression of free will, it’s more of an impulse, a bit like falling asleep or feeling hungry, where the mind and body begin to insist, and the sense of choice slowly fades.

Having used, the addict then loses the ability to control either how much they take or how they behave under the influence.

It’s only when the addict reaches the final stage, when they are so battered by their condition, that the window of opportunity for intervention once again opens.

That’s why access to treatment when it is sought is so essential.

Without adequate services in place for police to direct people to, any new measures will have limited effect.

Insight like this can’t be masked

Veteran commentator and resident broadsheet edgelord Iain Macwhirter joined the drug debate, providing some typically valuable insight.

He pointed out that under these new measures, you “can be prosecuted for not wearing a mask but not for being in possession of heroin”.

Iain must be commended for standing his ground in defence of the number of people currently serving time in Scotland’s prison system for mask-related offences – which can’t be that many.

A sharper contrarian would surely have pointed out that drug users may now conceal bags of cocaine (for personal use) behind their masks or that dealers may now only carry small amounts, potentially making them immune from prosecution – not to put ideas in anyone’s head.

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