Scotland politics

Kenny MacAskill calls for drug policy rethink

Kenny MacAskill Image copyright Scottish Parliament
Image caption Mr MacAskill was the Scottish justice secretary from 2007 until 2014

A former Scottish justice secretary has suggested that he would be in favour of decriminalising some illegal drugs.

Writing in The Herald, Kenny MacAskill argued that the country should move towards treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Mr MacAskill said many other countries had legalised or decriminalised the possession of drugs.

He said it was time for Scotland to "look anew" at how it dealt with the problem of drug abuse.

But he emphasised that people who profited from the "human misery" caused by the drugs trade should still be prosecuted.

Mr MacAskill served as the Scottish government's justice secretary for more than seven years until he was replaced by Michael Matheson in November last year.

The Scottish government said it had "no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs".

'Winds of change'

Earlier this month, Police Scotland said that some cannabis users caught by its officers may not be prosecuted and would instead receive an on-the-spot recorded warning.

Mr MacAskill said it was time for drugs policy to be fully devolved so Scotland could "take action fit for the second decade of the 21st century rather than administering UK drug laws from the early 1970s".

He said that the "winds of change" on drugs policy were blowing around the world, with a different approach being explored in countries such as the US, Portugal and in South America.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Cannabis has been decriminalised is several US states

He added: "Some have chosen to legalise some substances such as cannabis, others have decriminalised minor possession and sought to treat addicts whilst maintaining enforcement against the major drug trade.

"In all those jurisdictions, though, there has been a recognition that the "war on drugs" has failed. Even the United States with all its armoury is unable to stem the flow as it comes from within, as much as without their land.

"The direction is for drugs policy to no longer primarily be a law-enforcement issue, but become predominately a health and social one."

The SNP MSP for Edinburgh Eastern called for a commission to carry out a review of what he described as "one of the great social ills of our time".

He said: "They should be charged with setting the legislative base for a modern drugs policy for Scotland.

'Human misery'

Mr MacAskill said there would still have to be laws and "enforcement against those who make millions out of human misery must be maintained".

"The extent and manner can be debated but the direction of travel should mirror that now being pursued elsewhere," he said. "Predicated more on prevention rather than punishment and pursuing those profiting whilst helping those afflicted."

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell criticised Mr MacAskill's comments, adding: "It's bad enough that police want to decriminalise cannabis by the back door, but now it seems some senior figures in the SNP want to go even further."

And Scottish Labour's Graeme Pearson said Mr MacAskill's proposals were "wrong and potentially dangerous".

Mr Pearson added: "In my view recent changes to possession of cannabis to result in fixed warnings sends out a dangerous signal in the long term".

But Scottish Greens MSP John Finnie agreed that Scotland's drug laws were "dated" and in most instances "simply serve to criminalise, and thereby affect the life chances of countless otherwise law-abiding folk."

'Medicinal use'

Many of Scotland's leading drug policy experts also agree that a radical rethink of the country's approach to the problem is required.

And a UK government report last year found there is "no obvious" link between tough laws and levels of illegal drug use,

Portugal's national coordinator on drug addiction has also said that decriminalisation had "halved" the problem of heroin abuse in the country since the late 1990s.

Portugal has not legalised drugs but it has a system of not imposing criminal penalties on drug users who enter into special programmes designed to end their habits.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "The classification of drugs is currently reserved to Westminster - however, even should we gain responsibility for the issue, we have no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs.

"The medicinal use of drugs is a separate issue, which is also currently reserved to Westminster."

More on this story