Chris Marshall: Kenny MacAskill is right to argue the war on drugs has failed

Former SNP minister Kenny MacAskill told a radio show that  the drug debate wasn't 'worth the fight' during the time he was in office.
Former SNP minister Kenny MacAskill told a radio show that the drug debate wasn't 'worth the fight' during the time he was in office.
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Kenny MacAskill’s latest comments on the decriminalisation of drugs are likely to be a major source of frustration for campaigners seeking a new approach to an age-old problem.

Speaking on a BBC Radio Scotland programme broadcast yesterday, the former justice secretary said he was in favour of drug misuse being treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Mr MacAskill has previously given his backing to decriminalisation, but yesterday he went one stage further, saying he held those views while in office but chose to do nothing about it.

Pressed on the issue by his interviewers, former police officers Tom Wood and Peter Ritchie, the former SNP minister said his government had “bigger fish to fry” and said the drug debate wasn’t “worth the fight” at the time.

It’s a pity Mr MacAskill kept his views to himself because he’s right: the current approach isn’t working.

Figures released in August showed the number of people dying from drug-related deaths had risen to its highest-ever level.

Statistics from the National Records of Scotland showed 706 drug users died in Scotland in 2015, a 15 per cent increase on the previous year. The figure was more than double the total for 2005, when 336 died drug-related deaths. Of the 706 deaths, 49 per cent involved heroin and/or morphine, while heroin substitute methadone was implicated in 36 per cent of deaths.

While so many indicators of crime are going in the opposite direction, drug use continues to be a problem, particularly among older users.

Figures released yesterday showed the number of homicides in Scotland last year fell to their lowest level since 1976. But in around a third of cases the accused was under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both.

Drug addiction is arguably the biggest issue facing our criminal justice system, yet in seven years as a minister Mr MacAskill could always find “bigger fish to fry”.

These include his now seemingly aborted attempt to scrap corroboration and his mistaken decision to release the only man ever convicted in connection with the Lockerbie bombing.

Mr MacAskill says he now believes Scotland could move towards a system similar to the one in Switzerland, where those with addictions have their drugs legally administered through the health system. He is right that such a policy, although controversial, is likely to have a dramatic impact on the level of offending associated with drug use. Mr MacAskill says he always considered the war on drugs to be “pointless and harming”, and that his experience in office only confirmed that view.

But it’s probably too much to hope that his successor, Michael Matheson, is taking note.

Tackling drug misuse is one of those problems politicians tend to avoid because any results are unlikely to be seen until long after they leave office.

There is now a growing acceptance among researchers, the police and the wider public that the drug laws are not working.

It was the United States where the war on drugs was born but even there a number of liberal states are now taking a fresh approach by decriminalising cannabis.

And while decriminalising cannabis may not be the answer for Scotland, in taking a new approach to the problem of illegal drugs we could do worse than follow our American counterparts.