As official figures show drug-related deaths in Scotland reaching a new high, the author invites the profession to debate whether decriminalisation of drug use, as in Portugal, is the way forward

This article seeks to raise awareness about the possible benefits of decriminalising drugs and designing an appropriate framework that will help tackle Scotland’s drug epidemic. It does not seek to discuss the decriminalisation of drugs extensively but rather seeks to encourage opinions from members of the legal profession on the matter.

I must admit that it is rather difficult to open up a dialogue with someone about the subject of the decriminalisation of drugs without being branded as an advocate for drug consumption. This is perhaps because the general public finds great difficulty in making that distinction between the decriminalisation and the legalisation of drugs.

Decriminalisation, of course, means the loosening of criminal penalties, with civil sanctions coming to the forefront. It remains a contentious issue, and rightly so; drugs are notorious for causing exceptionally grave damage to individuals and society at large. However, it is time we consider the great burden that drugs put on policing resources. Moreover, just this summer, official statistics shockingly revealed that Scotland has the highest drug-related death rate in the EU. The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland soared to 1,187 last year (27% higher than the previous year, and the highest figure since records began in 1996).

Many governments around the world are navigating towards a more liberal drugs policy – there is no doubt that there must be a cause, an explanation, or a justification for this move. Drugs policies around the world range from legalising marijuana to decriminalising harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Still, the questions beg to be asked. Does a liberal drugs policy help solve drug-related problems, or does it exacerbate them? What makes a successful drugs policy, and what are different nations doing to tackle this epidemic?

Lessons to be learned from Portugal

2001 saw a major reshaping of Portugal’s drugs policy framework, with a law decriminalising all drugs coming into force. Although the possession and use of drugs remain illegal, the offence has changed from a criminal to an administrative one. This reshaping of Portugal’s drugs policy framework sits parallel to increased investment in the country’s welfare state. In Portugal, the Ministry of Health has the role of overseeing treatment for drug addiction which is accessible to all, free of charge. Portugal’s change of culture towards drugs policies has also seen substantial investment in the rehabilitation of drug users, with helping users reintegrate into society being the centre of attention.

Portugal reports that the country has the second-lowest drug-related death rate in the EU, after Romania. There is a continuing decrease in the rate of drug-related HIV infections and Aids cases. In 2014, Portugal’s national co-ordinator on drugs and drugs addiction pronounced that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal had seen the measurable effect of halving the problem of heroin abuse since the late 1990s.

The Scottish Public Health Minister, Joe Fitzpatrick, has recently spoken out about Scotland’s drug epidemic, stating that the number of people who have lost their lives to drug misuse is “shocking”. Moreover, he asserted that it is time that drug abuse is treated as a public health issue, as do our Portuguese counterparts, as opposed to a criminal justice issue. During his evidence to MPs at Westminster, he praised the Portuguese Government’s “bold move” to decriminalise drugs. Of course, a change of drug policy in the United Kingdom is reserved to Westminster. However, the Scottish Public Health Minister has pledged to consider any proposals that are given and to examine how to best tackle the epidemic and save lives.


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For a related article on the Portuguese experience, click here.

The Author
Ahmed Khogali is a dual-qualifying (Scots and English) LLB(Hons) graduate from the University of Dundee and a Diploma in Professional Legal Practice graduate from the University of Strathclyde
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