Sturgeon flirts with Scottish drug reform


It might seem that the SNP’s response to being a year-on-year drug deaths record holder is to take a lighter approach on users. Instead, the response is nothing more than a callous publicity move to show up Westminster.

The Scottish prosecution service has granted police the power to give those found in possession of class A drugs a caution, as they can for other lower classes of substance. While some might get over-excited and take this as a step towards a Portuguese-style treatment-based drug policy, the Scottish Government have stressed that decriminalisation is not the goal of the change.

The policy is a transparent attempt at damage control by the SNP. It will not make a significant impact on the use or trade of drugs in the country and may even diminish the consequences for their use. For the past eight years, Scotland has led Europe in overdose deaths, setting a new record each year. The recent death of Gerald Brown after waiting 40 hours for an ambulance, and continued difficulties with their Covid-19 app are on the minds of the Scottish public. By taking this small step, Holyrood hopes to distract their constituents from its recent record of public health failures.

Independence is the tartan elephant in the room – for Sturgeon it may backfire

On a national scale, this policy may appear unprecedented, but the truth is more complicated. As stated earlier, cautions rather than sentences are only really applied to class C substances. However, this is not as big a change in reality as it appears to be. In major cities, it is often the case that when the police catch someone with a possession quantity, they will confiscate rather than prosecute, unless it is connected with another offence. In reality, this is only a formalisation of common practice on the ground.

It is doubtful that we will see a replication of this measure in England. The Government has bigger fish to fry and wasting political capital on policy which would damage their ‘tough on crime’ image would be non-sensical. The only real support for something like this in Westminster would come from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, who don’t have the influence to action it. Labour would seem weak and indecisive supporting this, given that a return to the Blair era slogan of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was a centrepiece of last month’s party conference. Westminster lacks any motivation to replicate Hollyrood’s experiment.

The policy is a transparent attempt at damage control by the SNP

In any discussion of Scottish politics, independence is the tartan elephant in the room. For Sturgeon and her government, this may be another way of showing how different liberal, progressive Scotland is from stodgy, conservative Westminster. But it may well backfire on her. Lenient treatment of drug offences being potentially backed to conserve limited police funding may not play well given the millions Scotland spends on tin-pot embassies to play at diplomacy. Given that overdose deaths will likely keep rising, this policy presents a significant political risk.

The crux of this issue is that it is much like the rest of SNP policy in the last few years. It’s a dull policy which makes a seemingly innovative sound-bite, but lacks any great substance and serves as a subtle dig at Westminster.

Image: Scottish Government via Wikimedia Commons

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