Decriminalising drugs won’t help

Robin McAlpine

My formative years were in the 1990s; recreational drugs were everywhere. As a result I have absolutely no illusions about their reality. I know that they impact the most vulnerable hardest. I know they ruin lives. But I also know that, very often, they don’t ruin lives. The use of many illegal recreational drugs can be fairly harmless. I had successful, wealthy friends who maintained a recreational weekend drug habit with no real negative consequences.

But I had friends who struggled to hold down work, had a mouth full of gaps and a head full of anxiety and depression from the druggy lifestyle. I only knew a couple of heroin addicts, but that means I also know it gets much, much worse. It is as stupid to say that drugs are ‘good’ as to say that drugs are ‘bad’. We consume many psychoactive chemicals on a daily basis (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) and don’t even think of them as ‘drugs’ at all. It’s always about context.

All of this means I’ve thought a lot about drugs policy throughout my life, always filtered through the twin prisms of the sheer joy I saw them bring to people and the heartbreaking horror of seeing people destroyed by them. The one thing I can say with certainty is that we’re a million miles away from getting drugs policy right.

That is the context in which I receive news of the Scottish Government’s desire to decriminalise drugs in Scotland. But my response to that announcement is complex and nuanced and can’t be summarised in terms of a thumbs up or a thumbs down. So let me start with the good.

The good is that, for my whole life, politicians in a position of power have been terrified of the mad mid-market tabloids and their elderly, puritanical take on drugs. The inherent evilness of drugs (not the drugs their readers take, the other ones) is taken as given. All that is left is to catch the apostates and punish them.

So in that context, hats off to the Scottish Government for having the courage to stand apart from the quivering, petrified political consensus, a consensus few of them actually believe in but which they see as ‘the safe bet’. It showed some degree of actual courage to cross that road.

Sadly, beyond that I struggle somewhat to maintain my positive mood. It is very hard not to note that the Scottish Government is in a position of power – but not over drug policy. It is cost-free to propose law changes it doesn’t have to make and which it knows Westminster will not make on its behalf. It does look like virtue signalling. Braver than average virtue signalling, but pretty empty nonetheless.

And then of course it is quite hard to see this as being desperately significant in practical terms given that in Scotland there is an existing directive to police not to charge people with possession of small amounts of drugs unless there are aggravating circumstances – drugs are already effectively decriminalised in Scotland.

My next reservation is a simple one; decriminalisation does little to address the main harms of drugs – destructive addiction. Decriminalisation seems unlikely to make things worse for someone trapped in a spiral of addiction since there is no deterrent effect for someone who is already addicted. They aren’t going to consume more or less because of technical changes to the law.

But will it do them much good? If the most problematic drug users are going to be arrested it is more likely to be for petty theft to maintain their habit rather than for possession. I’m sceptical that decriminalising drugs would reduce their likelihood of a spell in prison. Clearly it is unlikely that they are in line for the kind of job that might be harmed by a minor drug conviction.

And if the crime and punishment aspect of decriminalisation is negligible, the impact on the possibility of rehabilitation is zero. That is my biggest concern with this proposal – the cynic in me struggles to be certain this isn’t an attempt to pick a fight with Westminster to distract from the woeful failure of the Scottish Government to get on top of supporting addicts and reducing drug deaths.

It is here that I want to bring in a bit of nuance. I am clearly a very big fan of rehabilitation for drug addicts, not from a puritanical position of ‘fixing them’ but from a humanitarian position of offering a life raft for someone who is drowning. 

That’s because I don’t actually have a problem with addiction in and off itself. I have had friends who were very clearly addicted to exercise (in at least two or three occasions to the extent of permanent harm to their health). I don’t know all that many people of my age who aren’t functionally addicted to caffeine. I’ve seen respectable, retired women get visibly twitchy if they are obstructed from their first Gin and Tonic on a holiday.

In fact the definition of human addiction isn’t straightforward and the difference between habit, desire and addiction isn’t always easy to identify. If someone can maintain a moderate drug habit without major negative impacts on their life, why is that a bigger problem than maintaining a moderate alcohol habit?

Rehabilitation shouldn’t be about the need to prevent people from doing ‘a bad thing’, it should be about a humane helping hand for people who are out of control, lost and suffering. There is no shortcut to it, no easy way to deal with complex problems, problems which are very likely to include deep-rooted poverty, mental health issues, family crises, instability, crime and much more.

Right now the Scottish Government is playing to target culture and trying to get more people ‘through rehabilitation’ by radically cutting the support period available during rehabilitation. It fails everyone except the politician who gets to read out statistics that sound like success but actually demonstrate dreadful failure. Ask almost any ground-level practitioner.

So if decriminalisation is there to disguise the fact that the Scottish Government continues to fail miserably on tackling Scotland’s real drug problems, it just feels horribly cynical. It cannot be – absolutely cannot be – an either/or.

But all of this is still only half of the problem. Decriminalisation is a demand-side issue, meaning those at the very bottom of the drug trade (the users) are protected more (but very, very slightly so). It does nothing at all to tackle the supply side, and that is the real overlooked crisis in drugs policy.

Because in fact there is a very credible argument that decriminalisation is actually worse than prohibition. It sends out a signal that drug use isn’t a crime, but forces those involved to engage directly with the most dangerous and vicious part of Scotland’s crime scene – serious organised crime. Decriminalisation says ‘this stuff isn’t illegal, but we’re going to make you hang out with vicious criminals if you want any’.

It prevents regulation of drug supply and so entrenches one of the worst aspects of drugs for addicts – impurity, adulteration and unpredictability. These are all factors which kill people. It does nothing to tackle the crime behind drugs and it fails to socialise drugs in any kind of sensible or effective way.

By keeping supply always illegal but possession and use basically legal, the whole drugs problem doesn’t go away and arguably gets slightly worse. And it is this which brings me back to the start, to my own (fairly extensive) experience with drugs. It has been clear to me for a very, very long time that trying to exclude drugs from our society is an object lesson in futility.

In fact if you want to get an idea how futile it is, check the top of a toilet cistern in Westminster for traces of white powder. There are people writing speeches about the need to maintain restrictive drug laws who are high while writing them. That’s the reality. Illegal drug use is probably more endemic among the middle classes than among the working classes.

And when you get to the younger generations, legality or otherwise isn’t even a factor in their thinking. Taking dance drugs is integral to a Saturday night out for many. (And quite why marijuana is still illegal at all is hard to fathom.) It’s not about whether we are normalising drugs in our society – that ship sailed a long time ago.

We in the Common Weal team debated this in some depth when we were developing the content for Sorted. I wanted to be radical, but because this is still a political hot potato I wanted to make sure everyone else was on board. I needn’t have worried. Every member of the team is acutely aware of the illogical, failing, unjust approach we have to drugs just now. 

Every one of us arrived quickly at basically the same conclusions; it’s not about decriminalisation, it’s about socialisation. It’s about recognising that drugs are part of our society and so what matters is finding a way to make them the most positive or least harmful part of that society we can.

Decriminalisation won’t achieve that. The only sensible conclusion I think that can be drawn is full legalisation. That leaves an awful lot of space for discussion about what that means, but I strongly favour government-controlled supply and regulation of recreational drugs to remove the profit motive which, in the end, is behind so much of the harm of drugs.

When you have a situation in which public policy is failing so completely as in drugs policy, radical change is necessary. Having the courage to say ‘decriminalisation’ is a step forward, but it’s not a meaningful solution. Tackling the problem of drugs isn’t a PR exercise, its a matter of life and death, a question of the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities.

I waited a long time for someone to have the courage to say ‘decriminalise’, by which time it wasn’t really courageous. I now wait patiently for our society finally to get to the only sensible outcome I can see. We need to integrate the reality of drugs into our society in sustainable way. It is that simple.

7 thoughts on “Decriminalising drugs won’t help”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    “it’s not about decriminalisation, it’s about socialisation. It’s about recognising that drugs are part of our society and so what matters is finding a way to make them the most positive or least harmful part of that society we can.

    “Decriminalisation won’t achieve that. The only sensible conclusion I think that can be drawn is full legalisation. That leaves an awful lot of space for discussion about what that means, but I strongly favour government-controlled supply and regulation of recreational drugs to remove the profit motive which, in the end, is behind so much of the harm of drugs.”

    That is the essence of the article and it is a position I agree with (as a 75 year old, who takes 5 prescribed drugs a day to stay alive!)

    Had you omitted all the petty Alistair Jack type jibes against the Scottish Government that use up a fair bit of space, you might have been able to develop the ideas in these two key paragraphs in more depth.

    Decriminalisation is an important step – it saves police time, it keeps many good citizens out of the criminal justice system and it then leads to the kind of ‘sensible conclusion’ which you set out.

    It is important in any serious debate that we operate the ‘principle of charity’, which my philosophy tutor urged me to deploy. Rather than echoing Alistair Jack and Westminster in stating the SG ‘wants to pick a fight’, use the principle of charity to take it at face value and have a constructive discussion.

    You are right to state explicitly that there is a common humanity aspect about treating suffering addicts with love, kindness and support. So, things like ‘safe spaces for injecting’ are essential. In conversations with friends and neighbours I have rarely found anyone who disagrees. I live close to a health centre which has a good support service for addicts and a couple of nearby pharmacies. However, because of the non-provision of safe spaces, the addicts go into a local play-park and other local public spaces to inject. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge I know of no local person who had suffered injury as a result of discarded equipment. But I would rather it was disposed of in the pharmacy or health centre.

    I think you spend too much time in the company of journalists, SPADs and others and their inherent misanthropic – and self-loathing cynicism can be infectious. Nevertheless, keep up the god work you and Comkonweal do and have done. All the best!

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    “good” not ‘god’!! _ a Freudian slip by this old atheist, who was raised as a Calvinist??

  3. Thank you for these thoughts. There’s another issue almost never mentioned when it comes to speaking of harm: the brutal and deadly effects of the production and criminal supply in developing countries. I recommend a shocking film illustrating this, set in Colombia and the USA: ‘Maria Full of Grace’, from 2004.


  4. I’m working with a Recovery Group at the moment. It’s striking how complicated their lives are. Most have complex caring responsibilities including for disabled dependents, have a background of abuse and in some cases the danger of continued abuse and have the challenges of having to battle their way through the faceless bureaucracy which seems designed to grind people like them up. One woman is being pursued for “unpaid council tax” which she believes she paid at the time.

    A whole life solution is needed for each person, one which will be different for each person. In particular we need to make sure people with a background of addiction are not pushed into circumstances where staying sober and facing the problems does not seem a viable option. When the problems are not solvable it makes sense to just say “screw it” and get wasted.

  5. PS I’d like to add that they’ve been wonderful to work with. The heroism with which they take care of the people in their lives, the kindness and generosity with which they treat each other is really inspirational. They are people who can show the rest of us the way.

  6. Bill Kerr-Smith

    Thank you for another thought-provoking article on a complex subject. Unlike Mr Macdonald (above) who thought you spent too much time on “petty Alistair Jack type jibes” (which amounted to 5 lines in a quite lengthy article) I think you absolutely needed to present that perspective to ensure that the topic was treated in the round and represented multiple views. Personally, I was unaware of the very limited ways in which this proposed legislation would enhance Scotland’s existing approach to drug regulation or management, so your observations were valuable and necessary.

    Sometimes some of your contributors/commentators lose sight of the fact that not everyone is as fully-informed about a topic as they might be themselves. It is greatly to your credit that you always try to strike the right balance between assuming too much, or too little, knowledge in your audience.

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