The failure of the War on Drugs in Scotland means we badly need a re-think. There were 706 deaths from drug overdoses in 2015, which represents a rise of 14% from 2014. Government figures suggest every year over a thousand Scots die as a direct result of alcohol. The problem we have in Scotland is we have a very accommodating view of alcohol but a very hostile view of drugs. While we revel as a society in our capacity to drink, we condemn people who take drugs, either to a prison sentence, a criminal record or at best, disdain.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Since doing so, HIV rates have plummeted and the country has amongst the lowest levels of drug overdose death anywhere in Europe. Nor has there been a surge in anti-social behaviour. Plus, despite what doom-sayers warned, overall drug consumption in Portugal has not spiked but has instead stayed fairly constant. The fact that possession of drugs is no longer a criminal offence has not meant the Portuguese have rushed out to try some.
There is a real opportunity for Scotland here. There are limits to how much you can lower tax in Scotland without the rest of the UK following suit. There was a great suspension in logic during the independence campaign that the Tories were both too right-wing for Scots but not so right-wing that it would match corporation tax cuts. Trying to cut taxes further than a Tory government is asking for trouble.
Fortunately, this does not apply to all policy. It’s hard to imagine a Westminster government brave enough to decriminalise drugs. They would face the inertia of the civil service, the tabloid press would warn of the last days of Rome and older people, more likely to vote, would probably oppose it instinctively. If Scotland wanted to it could have a free run at the countless benefits.
Prisons would no longer be holding pens for Scots with an addiction. The Howard League estimates that it costs taxpayers about £33,000 per year to keep someone in jail for a year. Can no-one think of a better way to spend this money? Besides, Scots in jail for drug possession are people that could be contributing to the economy by paying taxes and buying goods. Even in those cases where a prison sentence hasn’t been given, a criminal conviction on an application form can mean the difference between getting a job or forever going to the job centre, which costs the taxpayer yet more money.
Decriminalising drugs would also make Scots safer. It is obvious that there are risks when drugs are left unregulated and its left to gangsters to decide what the ingredients are. The same would be true of alcohol if the ingredients were not regulated. That’s why Russians die from drinking home-brew that contains god knows what. If our alcohol industry was unregulated and could put whatever it liked in a beer, of course there would be deaths from bad batches as there are at times from ecstasy pills. The only difference is alcohol is culturally very much approved of in Scotland whereas ecstasy is not.
There is no reason why Scotland could not compete with Amsterdam for tourists seeking a safe and legal place to take drugs. Let the old rich Americans play golf and take a whisky in the Highlands while younger tourists from Europe take a toke in Glasgow. This doesn’t just apply to overseas visitors. With nightclubs closing at an alarming rate it will be harder for those working in the night-time economy to justify living in London. York can keep its boozy stag and hen parties with the associated anti-social behaviour that goes with it. Glasgow, already leader for the night-time economy, could become the party capital of the UK with clubbers able to safely test the drugs they have bought before consumption and without the risk of arrest. If there was strong local feeling, councils of course could decide for themselves whether to restrict sales of drugs to locals, as is the case in The Netherlands.
Of course it would be naïve to think that decriminalisation of drugs could happen in Scotland without serious opposition. I’m quite sure the Scottish Conservatives would fume at the very idea, despite proclaiming themselves the party of enterprise. Likewise, certain sections of the press would be likely to object in strong terms.
All of this depends though on how radical Scotland is willing to be. Would independence mean a profound policy difference with our neighbour, as with USA and Canada, or would there would an unperceivable difference with the same failed policies replicated north of the border? Would an independent Scotland experiment with new approaches or would it be content to stick with the status quo? It is my belief that Scotland must say yes to treating drugs as a health problem, not a crime problem.
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