The launch of Scottish Drug Policy Conversations

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Anna Ross, a doctoral researcher, and Mike McCarron, a concerned citizen, members of the SDPC Steering Group, explain why they and others have initiated Scottish Drug Policy Conversations.

We live in exciting and critical times. Across Scotland a wave of participatory democracy is reviewing current policies, systems and cultures with proposals for a fairer, healthier and more prosperous future. Top down policy making and ring-fenced power are shifting towards bottom-up networks and participative decision making. An appetite for change is growing. Indeed, it is widely held that the sustained wellbeing of our planet and its inhabitants depends on our resolving major problems such as inequalities, immigration and economic fairness.

Drugs pose yet another major challenge: messily complex, globally networked, and strongly shaped by local contexts. The past 30 years have ushered in specialist treatment services, including innovations such as Drug Courts, Take-Home Naloxone and the peer-led recovery movement of recent years. But questions and problems remain, for example, the balance between health and criminal justice approaches, stubbornly high levels of drug deaths and the challenges posed by new psychoactive substances. There are policies and practices in other countries from which we could learn from such as decriminalisation of drug users and testing of substances for public information. But risk of controversy has stifled their serious consideration in Scotland.

Scotland’s drug strategy since 2008, The Road to Recovery, recognises the strong association of problematic drug use with inequalities of health, employment, housing, income and education,  but is silent on the 5000 years of recreational and religious use of drugs in human society.  Addressing both is a priority: “There needs to be much more consideration of the broader context of drug use in society and what this means, and should mean, for the prevention and management of drug problems” (Hammersley and Dalgarno, 2012, p.82).

This mirrors recommendations (Christie Commission, 2011) calling for public service reform, prevention of inequalities and eliminating waste of public funds. The latter implies critical examination of the socioeconomic costs of illicit drug harms, estimated by Scottish Government at £3.5 billion per annum (Scottish Government, 2009).

Drugs regulation and taxation have been strongly resisted by the UN. However, around the world there have been increasing calls, particularly over the last decade, for a fundamental review of how governments respond to drug use and harms including by the RSA, Scotland’s Futures Forum, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Global Drugs Commission. Meanwhile, despite UN treaties, regulation and taxation of cannabis and other drugs have taken place in the USA and several South American countries. Scotland’s citizens may be interested to know whether similar initiatives could make substantial savings and contributions to Scotland’s public funds in difficult economic times.

Despite the international movement for review and recommendations by UK Home Affairs Select Committees in 2002 and 2012 and other evidence-based UK reports, successive Westminster Governments have resisted calls to examine the effectiveness of current drug policy. One consequence of drug legislation being a UK reserved power has been to stifle discussion and action by successive Holyrood Governments. Following the 2014 Referendum several proposals for full devolution of drug policy were made to the Smith Commission but were not included in Smith’s final recommendations. However, since the 2015 Westminster Elections the political landscape has changed, and Scotland could potentially use the ‘strong voice’ of its MPs to promote review and reform at Westminster for the benefit of all the UK.

In an article in the SJM in June 2014 (It is in the interests of justice and health to de-criminalise drug users) it was mooted that this discussion be initiated by academics, third sector and professional institutions with government representation also being invited. SDPC is such an innovation. Growing out of talks within academic and practitioner fields, SDPC seeks to involve academics, civic and statutory organisations, drug users and people recovering, their families, concerned citizens and government.

For the reasons above, a participatory process deliberating drugs policy and practice, including regulation and taxation, could both inform Scotland’s approach to drugs and contribute to the development of knowledge internationally, with a strong emphasis on prevention. It could also help prepare for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session in 2016 (UNGASS 2016) taking stock of drug policy world-wide.

SDPC is very pleased that the inaugural conversation on 18 June 2015 will be hosted by Edinburgh University’s Academy of Government whose purpose is to ‘foster dialogue between academics and the community of practice; and to produce and disseminate knowledge and research on major public policy issues’, an ideal space for bringing together the many stakeholders having a perspective on this complex topic.

Numbers at the inaugural conversation will be limited due to the space available. But it is hoped that further conversations will take place and fresh thinking be liberated in a process drawing on the spirit of public social partnerships and co-production. People who would like to participate in future conversations or make comments now, can do so by emailing or

Hammersley, R. & Dalgarno, P. (2012). Drugs. Policy and Practice Series 12. Edinburgh: Dunedin Press.

Scottish Government (2009) Assessing the Scale and Impact of Illicit Drug Markets in Scotland.

Scottish Government (2011) The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services (Christie Commission)


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