Euan McColm: Real reasons we failed to reform drugs policy

The constitution may have been an obstacle to reform, but it could also lead us to an enlightened approach that saves lives, writes Euan McColm

The fact that drug deaths in Scotland rose by nearly a quarter in 2016 compared with 2015 has reignited debate. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto

Not for the first time, one wondered whether Kenny MacAskill fully understood the implications of what he was saying.

Last week, SNP MP Ronnie Cowan took the unexpected and very welcome step of trying to re-open the debate about the “war on drugs”, which is, of course, the name governments and law enforcement agencies give to their ongoing failure, at huge financial and human cost, to prevent the sale and consumption of illegal substances. It was time for a new approach, said Cowan, pointing to the situation in Portugal where the number of addicts fell after possession was decriminalised.

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On the same day that Cowan wrote in the Daily Record on the subject, former Scottish justice secretary MacAskill weighed in with his own piece in Holyrood Magazine. After standing down as an MSP last year, MacAskill has been eager to speak his mind (not least in his regular column for The Scotsman) even when he does not agree with the direction the SNP is taking.

On the subject of illegal drugs – deaths from which rose by 23 per cent last year – MacAskill wrote that it was time for the SNP to seek new powers over legislation from Westminster. Previous silence on the issue, he continued, “may have been understandable when the referendum was ongoing, now it’s simply cowardly as tragedy unfolds”.

The former justice secretary may think that failing to act on this issue because the constitution took precedence was understandable. I’m not so sure. But nationalists will be nationalists, I suppose. The constitution figures in just about every area, so why shouldn’t it impact on drugs policy?

MacAskill previously revealed that the Scottish Government had ruled out giving prisoners the vote during discussions before the 2014 independence referendum in case it harmed the Yes campaign’s cause, so it’s not as though we should be surprised that he feels the constitution has got in the way of a sensible debate about drugs.

Anyway, implicit in MacAskill’s remarks is the fact that the issue of Scottish independence is no longer at the top of any party’s political agenda so let’s skip past his odd justification and get to the meat of what he and Cowan are talking about.

Drug policy is an area that many politicians would prefer not to talk about. Historically, MPs who dared suggest a more liberal approach, perhaps even going so far as to call for decriminalisation, could expect – at best – to find themselves splashed across the pages of tabloid newspapers under a “He’s gone potty!” headline. Across the spectrum, politicians have chosen to avoid the matter if at all possible.

The consequence of this is that our drug laws might not be fit for purpose.

The majority of drug users do not have a problem – other than the fact that they are breaking the law. I’m sure that you know someone or someone who knows someone who uses drugs recreationally with no serious consequences. You know that the wilder rhetoric about the dangers of drug use just doesn’t reflect the experience of the majority of users.

Your mate Bill who smokes a bifter in the greenhouse of a Saturday afternoon is a fairly typical user and he’s no threat to society, is he? He’s just hungry and boring.

Cowan represents Inverclyde, an area where drug addiction has grown as a problem as jobs have become more scarce. When the shipyards were alive with the clatter and clang of production, the dealers had fewer victims on whom to prey. With greater unemployment came more customers looking to blot out the misery of their lives.

Cowan is quite right to question whether addicts – precisely none of whom are having a good time – should still be treated as criminals over their drug use. People addicted to heroin and other class A drugs are victims – initially, perhaps, of their own poor judgment, but eventually of substances which control their lives, destroy relationships and, in an increasing number of cases, kill them.

In what way, I wonder, is the public protected by criminalising these wretched souls?

There is no good reason that booze and tobacco should be legal while cannabis or ecstasy are not. The negative impact of drink and cigarettes is well known. These are substances easily as dangerous as others which are banned.

Taxes on alcohol and tobacco help fund public services, not least the NHS, yet drug barons selling weed to weekend stoners keep all their profits to themselves. Furthermore, they support criminal networks which traffic people and make them work on cannabis farms or force them to risk their liberty by smuggling.

Drug policy is currently the preserve of Westminster and I would be astonished if the current Conservative government was at all minded to change the law. This being so, I’m very much in favour of the Scottish Parliament taking responsibility for this area of legislation.

We have a hypocritical attitude to illegal drugs, turning a blind eye to the philosophy professor who likes a joint after dinner or the banker who snorts a line to kickstart the weekend while treating those who fall prey to opiate addiction as the lowest of the low.

These addicts, generally from poorer backgrounds, are the ones we lock up. Rich drug users aren’t a risk to society, I guess.

Every few years, politicians threaten to have a serious debate about drug policy, to think about whether cannabis should be made legal, whether possession of heroin should be decriminalised, but these debates never really get started before they descend into rows about “junkies” and “law abiding citizens”. Soon, the politician suggesting it’s time for another look at the issue is scared off and we carry on fighting a “war on drugs” that’s so ineffective as to be laughable.

It’s probably too much to hope that Ronnie Cowan will find many politicians (excluding retired ones like MacAskill) rallying to his side on this issue. But let’s hope some do because with increasing numbers of addicts paying for their frailties with their lives, it really is time to think again about whether we should be making criminals out of people who are harming nobody but themselves.