Scottish calls to legalise personal drug use dismissed within hours

Why does the Scottish government want to legalise personal drug use? ITV News Scotland Reporter Louise Scott explains

The Scottish Government's calls for personal drug use to be legalised were dismissed by leaders in Westminster within hours of them being announced, making any reform unlikely.

Scotland's drugs minister Eleana Whitham set out the new paper on drug law reform on Friday, arguing that decriminalisation would allow people found with drugs to be "treated and supported" instead of being treated like criminals. "Criminalisation kills", she said.

The minister also said she is "terrified" of the impact a lack of change could have on the number of drug deaths in Scotland, urging Westminster to consider the measures.

But responding within hours of the announcement, Rishi Sunak's spokesperson said the prime minister has no plans to alter his "tough stance" on drug laws, while the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said "the short answer is no".

Drugs laws remain devolved to Westminster, with the Scottish Government having engaged in repeated battles with the UK Government in recent years as it tries to stem the tide of Western Europe's highest drug deaths.

The policy paper produced by the Scottish Government said legalisation of personal supply would free "individuals from the fear of accessing treatment and support, reducing drug-related harms and, ultimately, improving lives".

The minister says that while "independence or further devolution" would allow the policies to be implemented, "these changes are not dependent on constitutional changes".

"We stand ready to engage with the UK Government on meaningful drug law reform to improve the lives of people who use drugs, their families and our communities," she said.

But speaking to journalists in Westminster on Friday, the prime minister's spokesperson said he has no plans to alter his "tough stance" on drug laws.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also ruled out the policy, all but ending the chances it will be implemented by the current or future UK governments.

"The short answer is no," she told journalists during a visit to Scotland. "I don't think this sounds like a good policy.

"I find it quite stunning that this would be a priority for the Scottish Government when we're here today talking about the Tory mortgage bombshell and what we would do to address that.

"We're here meeting people training to do jobs in the industries of the future.

"We've got more than 700,000 people in Scotland on NHS waiting lists - pick an issue."

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said drug deaths are three times as high in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK despite the same drugs laws, while Ms Reeves added that it was not a "constitutional issue".

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (left) with Elena Whitham at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Credit: PA

Other proposals outlined in the document include immediate legislative changes to allow Scottish ministers to implement harm reduction measures such as supervised drug consumption facilities, and increased access to the life-saving drug naloxone.

Asked how the UK Government would react when previous calls have been met with refusal, the Ms Whitham said on Friday: "Drug deaths are rising across the rest of the UK as well.

"We're actually facing down the barrel of a storm in terms of synthetic opioids and new and novel street benzodiazepines that are heading to our shores at the moment.

"If we are not prepared for that arriving here, with 21st century drug laws in place, I'm terrified as to what that could look like.

"So again, I would ask the United Kingdom Government to work constructively with the Scottish Government so that we can realise these proposals which, although may sound radical, but are actually tried and tested."

Later in the press conference, Ms Whitham said there had been "many conversations" between the two Governments, but said: "Most recently, the noises we have heard have not been as positive as we would like, but you can hear some changes afoot."

A joint statement from 10 leading drugs charities welcomed the report, but said the Scottish Government must implement the drug consumption rooms and drug testing facilities "as a matter of urgency".

Meanwhile, appearing alongside Ms Whitham in Edinburgh, Helen Clark, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and former prime minister of New Zealand, said she is unclear why drug policy is not a devolved matter, when issues of justice and health are.

"What is interesting to me is that while justice generally is a devolved competency for the Scottish Government, this area of drug policy has not been," she said.

"As the minister said, the ultimate answer is for the UK as a whole to change its position of not devolving this area, which I cannot see any rational reason for carving out from the justice and health portfolio areas."

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