The Times – 11th January 2021
Nicola Sturgeon should decriminalise drugs then dare the UK authorities to block her plans, according to a Scot driving justice reforms in the US.
The move would follow the approach taken by US states and in Catalonia, according to Michael Collins. As the strategic policy director for Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, he has been central to decriminalising drug possession in the city.
Mr Collins, originally from Glasgow and a former director at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs in Washington DC, urged radical steps to tackle drug deaths in Scotland.
Writing for The Times, he urged the Scottish government to follow the example of Colorado and Washington, which faced down the Obama administration over cannabis, and Oregon, which has voted to decriminalise the possession of heroin and other hard drugs despite federal opposition. Under the new laws, people found using hard drugs in Oregon will have to pay a $100 fine or attend new “addiction recovery centres” supported by funds from the state’s legal marijuana industry.
“Nicola Sturgeon has often used a lack of devolved powers as an excuse for inaction,” Mr Collins said. “Instead, the first minister should pursue a strategy of ‘better to ask forgiveness than permission’ on drug policy, doing what is right for Scotland and daring the authorities down south to block policies that save lives.”
The most recent figures show that almost four people a day died from overdoses in Scotland last year, more than double the figure a decade ago. The death rate of 231 people per million is 15 times above the European average.
Retired sheriffs and police officers have called for the decriminalisation of drugs. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 reserves powers to Westminster but critics have accused ministers and James Wolffe, QC, the lord advocate, of being too cautious. This includes failing to issue “letters of comfort” to enable safe consumption rooms to be set up, so the likes of Peter Krykant, an activist who runs such a facility in Glasgow, can operate without fear of prosecution.
Mr Collins highlighted Catalonia’s approach, where several rooms are in operation despite repeated attempts by Madrid to block them being set up.
Mr Wolffe has backed “diversions” by fiscals who waive or defer prosecution, allowing addicts the chance to address their issues. Cases have halved since 2016 when 3,500 charges of simple drug possession proceeded to court. In 2018-19 that number fell below 1,800.
Angela Constance, the drugs policy minister, said: “I will be meeting with Mr Collins next month and I am interested to hear any ideas in the interests of public health. Addressing drug related harms is a public health priority and we are prepared to consider innovative, evidence-based approaches within the powers we have.
“We have called on the UK government to use its powers through the Misuse of Drugs Act to enable us to implement a range of public health-focused responses, including the introduction of safe consumption facilities in Glasgow. If the UK government won’t act then the powers should be devolved.”
“The first minister will make a statement this month detailing how we will use our existing powers to deliver a step-change in reducing harm and promoting recovery. Many of the services in place are good but our mission in response to this public health emergency needs to be bigger, better and faster.”