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UK drug reform: laughable or logical?

Updated: May 23

Ewan Edwards

Humza Yousaf, amidst a bombardment of challenges in his first 100 days in office, has endeavoured to shift the political focus away from concerns about SNP criminality by presenting a ground-breaking policy paper aimed at revolutionising Scotland's drug legislation. Regardless of Mr. Yousaf's motivations for bringing this policy paper to the fore, it represents not only a logical and necessary piece of legislation but also the type of transformative public policy that has been lacking in the United Kingdom in recent years.

The white paper, titled 'A Caring, Compassionate and Human Rights Informed Drug Policy for Scotland,' advocates for treating drug dependency as the health crisis it truly is. In Scotland, drug use ranks as the third biggest cause of population health loss, following closely behind dementia and heart disease.

However, the current legal framework under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 criminalises drug use, creating a barrier to seeking treatment. It is illogical that a health epidemic like drug use, which caused 1,330 deaths in Scotland in 2021, is addressed through the criminal justice system. Alcohol-specific deaths, a comparable problem which amounted to 1,245 deaths in the same year, are not treated in the same manner.

Same problem, different approach, worse results.

The central focus of drug law reform should be the reduction of harm; the war on drugs was lost years ago, and so governments should no longer seek to protect society by criminalising recreational drugs - this only harms the health of those struggling with addiction.

Should we care about this type of policy reform amid an economic crisis?

The easy answer is no, the informed answer is most definitely. If we take the SNP’s recommendations in entirety and legalise all drugs for recreational use effective immediately, the strain on public services would diminish and the tax revenue for HM Treasury would significantly increase. With proper regulation comes a reduced risk of overdose; users would know the exact amounts they are consuming and would be assured that their substances are not laced with dangerous additives like fentanyl.

Moreover, paramedics would breathe a sigh of relief. By removing the illegal market, the 35,410 drug crimes recorded in 2021 by Police Scotland would be eradicated as county-lines drug trading and other drug-related criminal activities would diminish. This would also provide a sense of relief for the police. Further, the government already benefits from alcohol and tobacco duties, and a similar model could be applied to the sale of recreational drugs, generating additional revenue.

The taxman will always be hungry for more. Proper regulation is not then a concern solely for public health bodies but also alleviates the burden on public services and provides an economic boost to the treasury.

Of course, this a simplified version of events but legalising or decriminalising drugs that are already commonly used recreationally is a far more holistic approach to the one currently pursued by the UK Government. Life is far from simple when it comes to drug users, they often find themselves in a grey area. They bear a dual burden, being criminalised for both their drug use and the illegal activities they engage in to sustain their addiction.

The irony of it all? These people are treated as criminals, not patients in need of care and support.

It is highly unlikely that this sort of policy would be taken by either the Conservative or Labour parties. Keir Starmer has already placed himself firmly in the anti-drug camp, despite admitting in all but name to drug use, professing “I had a good time at university” when asked about possible use. It is regrettable that the politics of the last decade has shifted focus from crafting a refreshing and transformative vision of Britain, instead to prioritising the delivery of electorally popular messages devoid of any real substance.

The relaxation of drug laws through decriminalisation particularly for common recreational drugs, such as cannabis, appears a growing inevitability. The SNP’s white paper underlines how decriminalisation is becoming the norm globally, with 30 countries recognising the harm criminalisation causes and moving to change their laws.

If our political parties do not allow this change to become a process it will become an event and that will only damage them at the ballot box.

Whilst there are legitimate concerns and uncertainties surrounding full-scale decriminalisation, it is now crucial to adopt a bold and progressive stance on drug policy. The reality is that recreational drug use cannot be completely eradicated and ignoring its existence would be turning a blind eye to a widespread and inevitable aspect of many people's lives, including many individuals within our government.

Why then do we take such a demeaning and stigmatising approach to drug addicts? It is about time that someone takes both a logical and evidence-based approach to drug laws in our country.

For all his faults, Humza Yousaf will undoubtedly be on the right side of history when it comes to the recreational drug use reform.

Image: Humza Yousaf

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