Chris Marshall: Time for a fresh approach to illegal drugs

IT’S time to take another look at Scotland’s drug problems, writes Chris Marshall

Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said Scotland should look anew at the scourge of drug abuse, possibly by decriminalising some illegal substances. Picture: TSPL

It’s a frustrating trait among politicians that they only become truly radical once they have left office. In seven years as justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill limped from crisis to crisis, upsetting the legal profession with his plans to scrap corroboration and upsetting nearly everyone else by cosying up to Police Scotland.

If Mr MacAskill left a legacy, much of it is now being slowly undone by his successor, Michael Matheson.

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But now that he is truly free to say what he thinks, the former Scottish Government minister is beginning to talk a good game.

Writing in a newspaper earlier this week, Mr MacAskill said Scotland should “look anew” at the scourge of drug abuse, possibly by decriminalising some illegal substances.

Mr MacAskill called for drugs policy to be fully devolved so Scotland could “take action fit for the second decade of the 21st-century rather than administering UK drug laws from the early 1970s”.

His intervention followed a curious announcement by Police Scotland last week that officers will issue on-the-spot warnings for a broader range of petty offences in a bid to speed up Scotland’s justice system.

The decision was interpreted as a major step change in the policing of cannabis possession, although both the police and the Crown Office later sought to distance themselves from that position.

Mr MacAskill is right to say the time has come for a fresh approach to illegal drugs.

The current approach just isn’t working.

If the “war on drugs” remains a concept that people subscribe to, then it is surely now another military misadventure which should be brought to an end.

The Scottish Government’s own figures show that the number of those classed as having a drug problem in Scotland has sat stubbornly around the 50,000 mark for the past decade.

The most recent figures from the National Records of Scotland show there were more than 600 drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2014, up from 526 the year before.

Around three-quarters of the deaths in 2014 were linked to heroin or methadone.

Behind those deaths is a business responsible for much of the criminality and misery that occurs in communities across Scotland.

Mr MacAskill’s argument is that while enforcement activities against the dealers must be maintained, there needs to be more focus on prevention rather than punishment for users.

Those with addictions should be treated by the NHS, not caught up in the criminal justice system.

He points to the experience of countries such as the United States, where the “war on drugs” was born but where a number of liberal states are now taking a fresh approach by decriminalising cannabis.

That is not to say we should simply turn a blind eye to recreational drug use.

While cannabis may not claim lives the way heroin or methadone does, it can cause real difficulties for habitual users.

But with decriminalisation comes better regulation and more power being taken away from the drug gangs.

Like many before him, Kenny MacAskill is now enjoying life away from the pressures of being a cabinet minister by speaking his mind.

He is right to raise the issue of tackling Scotland’s drug problem; it’s just a shame he hadn’t done it sooner.