MSP urges decriminalisation of drugs

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South Queensferry’s MSP has made an impassioned new plea for a radical decriminalised approach to drugs, including heroin.

Edinburgh Western Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton yesterday told the Lib-Dem’s party conference that hundreds of deaths caused by drug use every year make it essential for Scotland to learn from the experience of other countries.

These would include, for example, the Netherlands, where cannabis has been decriminalised for many years, and where heroin users can obtain “clean” supplies of the drug from special clinics.

A bid to establish what could amount to a pilot venture for such a system in Scotland is underway in Glasgow.

The Lib-Dem desire for a seismic change in the way illegal drugs are dealt with is nothing new, but at the conference it was argued that law enforcement strategies are clearly failing.

At the same time it’s claimed that “dramatic cuts” to drug and alcohol serices have been imposed by the SNP Government.

The Scottish Government cannot change the laws on drugs, which are a reserved UK matter, but it was argued police should use their discretion to ignore drugs held only for personal use.

Recent cases in areas including Grangemouth suggest police, on at least some occasions, are already merely cautioning people found in possession of small quantities of cannabis.

The Scottish Green Party takes a very similar view to the Lib-Dems, stating in its manifesto: “We will support licensing for the supply of cannabis and propose that other currently illicit drugs required as part of a programme of treatment for addiction are supplied through pharmacist-run treatment centres.

“Enforcement of existing laws should prioritise targeting major illicit suppliers, and penalties should reflect accurate assessment of harm.”

At the conference Mr Cole-Hamilton, the Lib-Dems’ health spokesman, asserted that the evidence of failure to tackle drug problems puts the Lib-Dem view “firmly in the mainstream” when it comes to scientific and medical practice on how to deal with drug incidents.

He said: “For many years the Liberal Democrats have supported a policy of decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use and provision of heroin assisted treatment clinics as a way of reducing both harm to the individual and to society.

“This policy would prevent unnecessary deaths, alleviate the burden on our NHS and free up the justice system to tackle the people and organised crime groups producing and dealing drugs.

“It is time the Scottish Government got behind this approach.”

Debating the issue at the Perth conference, John Waddell – from the party’s Aberdeen Central branch – said: “We support decriminalisation for a very good reason – criminalising people for their vulnerability achieves nothing.”

He added: “We are liberals at hearts. We support the autonomy of individuals over coercion. There is no autonomy where there is addiction.”

The motion called for established safe injecting rooms and drugs testing facilities “in all localities where there is a need”.

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Speaking in favour of this, Ewan Hoyle, from Glasgow South, argued that the current “deterrent effect is not working” and the country had to move away from the “dumb enforcement of a dumb law”.

He asked: “What are the alternatives to enforcement?”

Mr Hoyle said injection rooms, providing drugs on the NHS and decriminalising drugs would protect communities from crime, protect the addicts and save lives.

“Our drug-related death rate in Scotland is far and away the worst in Europe,” he stated

Arguing that most drug users had mental health problems, he added: “We cannot claim to be the party of mental health if we leave drug users in the shadows.”

David Hannay, from Galloway – a retired GP, said providing heroin on the NHS would leave the authorities clear to pursue real criminals.

He pointed to the examples of Switzerland and Portugal, where he said more liberal drug laws had helped reduce the scale of the drugs problem

“Both drug-related crime and deaths have gone down, whereas in Scotland they are rising,” he said.

“We need to change. The war on drugs is not working.”

Ben Lawrie, from Angus and Mearns, insisted: “This is not a motion that advocates the use of drugs. It is a motion that advocates compassion.

“It’s time to stop punishing people whose only victims are themselves.”

After the motion was passed, Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “With a record 700 deaths now caused by drug use each year, it is essential that Scotland learn from the experience of other countries that have taken radical steps to reduce unnecessary and tragic drug-related deaths.

“Under the SNP, we have seen dramatic cuts to drug and alcohol services and existing drug law enforcement strategies are failing.

“Today’s conference vote puts us firmly in the mainstream when it comes to medical and scientific evidence and best practice on tackling drug-related incidents.

“For many years, the Liberal Democrats have supported a policy of decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use and provision of heroin assisted treatment clinics as a way of reducing both harm to the individual and to society.

“This policy would prevent unnecessary deaths, alleviate the burden on our NHS and free up the justice system to tackle the people and organised crime groups producing and dealing drugs.

“It is time the Scottish Government got behind this approach.”