Why a Labour government won’t commit to widespread reforms to ease Scotland’s drug death crisis

An incoming Labour government will not overhaul drugs laws to combat Scotland’s drug deaths emergency, Keir Starmer has suggested.

Sir Keir Starmer has failed to commit to reforming drugs laws at Westminster in a bid to turn around Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis, instead calling on the SNP to rethink how the emergency got “so bad on their watch”.

The Labour leader declined to commit to widespread reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act if the party forms the next government at Westminster. The SNP Government at Holyrood has repeatedly called on UK ministers to relax the legislation and shift the focus away from treating drugs primarily as a criminal justice issue and tackling it as a health emergency.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has declined to commit to overhauling drug legislation (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA)Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has declined to commit to overhauling drug legislation (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has declined to commit to overhauling drug legislation (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA)

Scotland remains the drug deaths capital of Europe, with 1,051 fatalities recorded in 2022.

The Scottish Government has insisted the Misuse of Drugs Act “limits the effectiveness of our public health approach” as it “criminalises people who experience the inequalities that drive drug use and presents a barrier to seeking treatment”.

Asked by The Scotsman if an incoming Labour government would commit to reforming drugs laws, Sir Keir instead shifted the focus onto the Scottish Government.

He said the “question for the SNP” was rather than “who can we find to blame” for the situation, it was to examine “how did this happen on their watch?”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) speaks to SNP First Minister John Swinney (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) speaks to SNP First Minister John Swinney (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) speaks to SNP First Minister John Swinney (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

Sir Keir added: “How did this get so bad on their watch? It’s shocking. If they concentrated on that question, they’d be a lot better off.”

Asked the same question, Mr Sarwar insisted “it is a public health issue, primarily, rather than a criminal justice issue”. But the Scottish Labour leader stressed “we don’t think it should become a constitutional fight”.

He added: “We have the exact same drugs laws in Scotland as the rest of the UK, but we still have three times the number of drug deaths. Clearly there is something specific in Scotland that we have to challenge.”

Mr Sarwar added: “Safe consumption rooms, proper investment in alcohol and drug partnerships, a right to rehab, proper resourcing of local government alleviating poverty, fixing our housing crisis – all of this is really important.

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Keir Starmer with Anas Sarwar at the launch of Labour’s six steps for change in Greenock. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)Keir Starmer with Anas Sarwar at the launch of Labour’s six steps for change in Greenock. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
Keir Starmer with Anas Sarwar at the launch of Labour’s six steps for change in Greenock. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

“I think too often we look at our drug death figures separate form our mental health and suicide rates and I probably think there will be an overlap there. I don’t think we are addressing that joint-up coordinated approach.”

SNP candidate for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, Tommy Sheppard, called on “Westminster to lead the charge, or else devolve the necessary powers to Scotland”.

He said: “It is extremely disappointing that Keir Starmer has ruled out reforming outdated Westminster drug laws to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Doing nothing and looking the other way in the hope that things will change is frankly not the answer to drug misuse in our society.

“People who are victims of drugs misuse have been penalised by 14 years of Tory neglect, scapegoating and stigmatisation, and it looks like this sadly isn’t set to change with an incoming Labour government, who would rather criminalise than treat this issue as a public health emergency, like Scotland does.”

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