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Scotland calls for decriminalisation of personal drug use to combat misuse


Scotland made recent headlines with its high drug death numbers. Dubbed the drug death capital of Europe, the country recorded 298 suspected drug-related fatalities between January and March 2023, constituting a 5% rise compared to the same period in 2022.


As a result, the Scottish government investigated numerous ways to tackle the problem, which included an extra £250m in funding in January 2021. Despite these efforts, mortalities associated with drug misuse remain a concern.


However, some positive steps include the government’s medication-assisted treatment (MAT) standards, community funding and the expansion of residential rehabilitation services. There are also moves to review existing laws, including the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.


Decriminalisation of drug use in Scotland


A July 2023 publication, called ‘A Caring, Compassionate and Human Rights Informed Drug Policy for Scotland’, echoed the opinion of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by stating that drug policies should be evidence-based. To do this, reviewing the UK’s present legal framework on drugs is imperative to promote a holistic approach to the problem and resultant treatments.


The Scottish government maintains that a comprehensive approach includes the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use. It proposes a focus shift away from criminalisation, exclusion and punishment toward treatment and support for those battling with drug misuse issues.


To motivate this suggestion, the policy paper states that the illegality of personal drug use fuels stigmatisation and discrimination. It also highlights that legal punishments isolate transgressors and escalate negative impacts on personal, family and community levels.


This proposal does not, however, mean that those who possess drugs with the intent to distribute can get away with this illegal action. So, drug trafficking at any level remains a criminal offence punishable by law.


Drug consumption facilities and increased testing


The Scottish government wants the review of existing laws to include the legalisation of supervised drug consumption facilities. It suggests that places such as these would give drug users, their families and the wider community safe spaces with underlying treatment programmes and other benefits.


Sixteen countries around the world support and run supervised drug consumption facilities (SDCFs). Evidence gathered from these shows success in implementing and expanding measures to combat drug abuse as the establishments offer treatment and rehabilitation services.


SDCFs further help with the distribution of safe and hygienic drug-use paraphernalia such as inhalation equipment and needles. This helps to prevent secondary infections and diseases, alleviating some of the drug misuse-associated strains on the healthcare system.


These facilities will also make drug testing services more effective as checking programmes are rolled out exactly where needed the most. As a result, authorities can carry out testing at the root level and react more quickly to emergencies such as drug overdoses.


As effective drug testing forms the core of any successful treatment programme, on-site tests at SDCFs will help to inform interventions based on tangible data of drug-use patterns. Specialists such as Matrix Diagnostics have the know-how to successfully plan and train staff members in running a comprehensive drug testing programme at an SDCF.

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