Drugs policy proposals: letter to Home Office Minister

Drugs Policy Minister calls for urgent meeting to discuss concerns about UK drugs policy proposals.

To: Jeremy Quin MP, Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire

From: Minister for Drugs Policy Angela Constance

May I congratulate you on your new role as Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire. In my role as Minister for Drugs Policy in Scotland, reporting directly to the First Minister, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you soon and work collectively on the areas where we are able to reduce the harms of problematic drug use and address the high number of drug-related deaths. 

Recent statistics published for Scotland, along with those for England and Wales, show that the number of drug-related deaths have reached unacceptable record levels across the United Kingdom, though this is particularly acute in Scotland.

I am sure you will be aware of the ongoing discussions between our governments on this issue. While I did not have the opportunity to meet with your immediate predecessor, I have previously had numerous conversations with Kit Malthouse MP, covering a variety of topics such as safer drug consumption facilities, the need for pill press regulations, and the introduction of drug checking facilities. I am sure you will have received the detail of these previous discussions.

In my letter to your predecessor on the 22 July 2022, I noted my concerns around what has been described as new consequences for drug possession in the Home Office publication; Swift, Certain, Tough. The paper sets out that some proposals, including the most punitive, may apply in Scotland. I received a reply on the 25 August 2022 claiming that these measures are a step towards changing the damaging culture of drug use. 

I disagree and instead feel that these measures are contradictory to the human rights based, public health approach that the Scottish Government is implementing, and could undermine aspects of our National Mission to improve and save lives.
I have previously outlined that these proposals, in particular the confiscation of passports or drivers licences, raise significant concerns on civil liberties and human rights grounds. 

I continue to be concerned about the lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of such measures. The paper itself states “we will not shy away from proposing new and innovative ideas. If this means being the first country to build an evidence base for a particular intervention, then that is what we will do.” However, there is already clear evidence that hard-line policies like this are often ineffective at tackling drug use and can disproportionately impact people from lower socio-economic groups and ethnic minorities.

In addition, these proposals appear to have been designed with the criminal justice system in England and Wales in mind, without detailed consideration of how this would work in Scotland. It is not clear how these policies will be implemented, but while the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 may be reserved, its implementation as part of the justice system is devolved. 

Policing in Scotland is an operational matter for the Chief Constable of Police Scotland. In addition, the Lord Advocate, as head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Scotland has sole responsibility for prosecutions in Scotland. The suggestion that these measures may be introduced in Scotland ignores our different legal system, and, at present, fails to take account of the fact that they may prove unworkable in Scotland. As such, these measures require to be discussed with both Police Scotland and COPFS.

For these reasons, I must reiterate my opposition to any decision that requires Scotland to implement these measures and would highlight the significant risks inherent in this approach. The Scottish Government will send a response to the Home Office consultation soon, which will set out these concerns in further detail. I would also welcome an urgent engagement with yourself to seek clarity on any plans to implement these proposals in Scotland. 

Scotland has taken a different approach to the UK Government by treating problematic drug use as a health issue, implementing evidence-informed measures to reduce related harms. This approach is in line with recommendations from the ACMD; the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee; the UK Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee; as well as other experts and academics. 

We recently published our National Drugs Mission Plan, which lays out how we will do everything in our power to implement a public health approach to problematic drug use. This builds on the work done in the first year of our National Mission, as announced by the First Minister of Scotland in January 2021 and supported by an additional £50 million per annum.

I would welcome your commitment to working together on this issue which tragically affects too many of our fellow citizens. The next UK Drugs Ministerial meeting is scheduled for 1 November and I look forward to meeting with you then. I would however, very much welcome an opportunity to meet with you in advance of that date to talk through the approach we are taking and to discuss what we can do collectively to respond to this public health emergency.

I have copied this letter to the relevant parliamentary committees to ensure transparency as they have previously indicated an interest in this work.

I look forward to your response.

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