The War on Drugs Has Failed And It's Time to Decriminalise, Scotland Says

The Scottish government says it needs radical changes to the UK's old drug laws in order to tackle record drug deaths.
Max Daly
London, GB
Drug injecting paraphernalia in a street in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images.

The Scottish government wants to legalise drug possession for personal use and potentially the entire drug market as part of a massive change in the way addiction is tackled. 

Scottish ministers want to reform drug laws to enable people with drug problems to be better supported instead of being criminalised. They want to address record drug death rates in the country, which are 15 times more likely to affect the poorest 20 percent, and are the highest in Europe. 


Currently the Scottish government, led by the Scottish National Party with the Scottish Greens, has no power to change the laws in this way. VICE News has contacted the UK Home Office for a response to the proposals.

In 2021 the crisis prompted a £250m investment by the Scottish government into the country's addiction services, with former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitting her government had “failed” every person who had died as a result of drug addiction.

A policy paper outlining the plans published Friday, entitled A Caring, Compassionate and Human Rights Informed Drug Policy for Scotland, called for the decriminalisation of personal drug possession, the expansion of harm reduction tools such as heroin assisted treatment, supervised drug consumption facilities and drug checking, and a roadmap to explore legal regulation of drugs. 

"We want to create a society where problematic drug use is treated as a health, not a criminal matter, reducing stigma and discrimination and enabling the person to recover and contribute positively to society,” said Scotland's drugs policy minister Elena Whitham. 

She said that as a strategy to reduce drug use, “the global war on drugs has failed in its objectives”.

“To improve and save lives, we must be innovative, bold and radical. We are clear that nothing should be considered off the table. We must start by recognising that no country, anywhere in the world, has succeeded in eliminating drug use. A fairer, safer and healthier country must care about all its citizens and be inclusive of those with health conditions such as drug dependence.”


In order to achieve these objectives, which Witham said were supported by the public, the UK government needed to change its half a century old drug laws to enable Scotland “to appropriately tailor policy decisions to our unique challenges”.  

The paper said decriminalising small amounts of drugs for personal use “could provide a framework within which we can better pursue our existing policies to help, treat and support people rather than criminalise, stigmatise and fail them”.

It said it would also look at outright legalisation. “Implementing a more evidence-based approach to drugs policy could be the basis for considering the potential of introducing regulated markets for the reduction of harm and the safe control of substances”. 

The Home Office has repeatedly said it would not consider decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, for the exact same reason Scotland wants to make its reforms, because of the damage drug addiction and markets cause to individuals and communities.  

A government spokesperson said: “Illegal drugs destroy lives and devastate communities. We are committed to preventing drug use by supporting people through treatment and recovery and tackling the supply of illegal drugs, as set out in our 10-year Drugs Strategy.

“We have no plans to decriminalise drugs given the associated harms, including the risks posed by organised criminals, who will use any opportunity to operate an exploitative and violent business model.”

Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which campaigns on global drug reform, said the UK government should take heed of Scotland’s progressive action on drugs.

“This demonstrates commendable political leadership from the Scottish government on this crucial issue. Rather than pandering to “tough” populist narratives, this UK Government and the Labour Party must support Scotland in delivering these proposals, and take note that this is the best way to end the drugs crisis in the rest of the UK as well.”