This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Crime statistics released recently by the Home Office revealed something of an anomaly between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Up here, it seems, we prosecute nearly twice as many drug dealers as England and Wales. Considering the drug laws in Scotland are exactly the same across the United Kingdom, this struck me as a little odd.
If it had only happened this one time I suppose it could be written off as a blip. However, one Scottish academic—Dr. Iain McPhee from the University of the West of Scotland—first noticed the inconsistency popping up in 2003 and has been researching it since then.
I asked Dr. McPhee what might be causing this anomaly, and he gave me three possible reasons.
"I guess the explanations that could be put forward are that there are more dealers in Scotland—which may be the case, but perhaps is unlikely given that Manchester, Birmingham, and London do have, in themselves, very well established drug scenes, as well as massive amounts of treatment agencies and police activity," he said. "Another reason is that the practices of the police themselves account for that. Or it could be that more drugs are taken in Scotland."
However, Dr. McPhee believes that the best explanation for the number of prosecutions is the reliance of the Scottish courts on the Statement of Opinion Unit (STOP), which is made up of serving and ex-drug squad officers. Their job is to tell the court if the drugs found on a person are for their own use or for onward sale. They are, effectively, expert witnesses for the prosecution.
Only, at no point in the Misuse of Drugs Act does it actually say how much constitutes a personal amount and what's considered a dealing amount, meaning it's down to the police to classify each individual case. And the amount deemed necessary to be charged as a dealer in Scotland does seem to be lower than throughout the rest of the UK. Having witnessed a number of court cases up close as an expert witness for the defense, Dr. McPhee puts the blame of the abnormal prosecution rates firmly at the door of these officers.
"I've been through the court process and had access to all the same materials as the police, in terms of surveillance logs, tapes, forensic analysis and the types of people who were prosecuted and for what amounts," he said. "It seems to me that […] perhaps STOP themselves have set up unofficial tariffs about what they deem as possession for personal use or possession with intent to supply, created without any account of academic research, government benchmarks, or guidance.
"That, to me, examining the available evidence, accounts for the anomaly. Again, it's a theoretical perspective and might not account for everything, but if England, Wales, and Northern Ireland don't have dedicated STOP officers it seems to me that would be a useful conclusion to make based on that evidence.
"The [drug dealing] activity doesn't seem to be more concentrated in Scotland. What seems to be happening is that the police are more successful at persuading courts that the amounts are indicative of trafficking or dealing. These thresholds appear to be quite low. They've never released the tariffs because they themselves have, I think, created them. Whereas, if you look at Portugal they've created a tariff which they've applied nationally."
When I spoke to Kenny Simpson, a STOP unit coordinator, he rejected Dr. McPhee's theory.
"We are in a unique situation," he told me. "Our evidence is tested by the courts and is scrutinized quite severely. The STOP units assist the court, and it's thereafter a matter for the courts to decide if the information provided is a) credible and b) reliable. For it to be suggested that Police Scotland applies its own rules about anything is actually quite ludicrous. There's not a sheriff or a judge in the country that would allow a court to be misled by police targets."
According to Simpson, there is one obvious and easy way for a STOP unit to tell if drugs are intended for onward supply.
"Sub-divisions of controlled drugs is a clear indication that supply is inferred," he said. "Nobody would suggest to you otherwise. A heroin user or addict will not buy ten $15 bags; it doesn't make economic sense. People do not buy kilos of heroin for their own use. And you can quote me on that. When somebody buys for their own use, they buy what they need. They don't want to run the risk of being caught with significant amounts."
In 2013, Scotland's eight police forces were merged into one giant police force. This had a number of repercussions.
Firstly, local police boards—to whom the individual forces were accountable—were scrapped, replaced with the Scottish Police Authority, a new fledgling organization who have come under criticism for being not very effective at all.
Secondly, a man called Sir Stephen House became the Chief Constable for the whole of Scotland. Chief Constable House introduced the tricks he had learned as Glasgow's Chief Constable nationally, including the controversial and possibly human-rights-act-breaching, non-statutory stop and search laws.
Under this legislation, a police officer can ask to search you for no other reason than the fact he wants to. No crime has to be committed. You just have to say yes. What the police often did not tell you was that you can also say no. The practice, understandably, was banned in England and Wales in 2002. Now, after much pressure from journalists and politicians, it's also being phased out in Scotland. We've yet to see whether this causes a dip in the number of drug-related prosecutions.
Thirdly, the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency (SDEA) were taken into the fold. A separate force for many years, they were tasked with winning the War on Drugs in Scotland. As much as their job was to apply the law, it was also to warn of the dangers of drugs and to provide the mainstream media with a number of stories about bad people being caught with drugs.
When the SDEA became part of Police Scotland they took with them their internal targets.
Again, never published and never public, these benchmarks, according to Dr. McPhee, are why the reported "street price" of various drugs and the price you'll actually pay for them are often so different. If you're caught with a gram of coke, these guidelines would split that gram into lines, then value each line at the highest price possible—essentially the equivalent of buying a $15 bottle of Scotch and the police valuing each individual nip at $10.
If the police had to meet benchmarks on quantities seized alone, they would struggle. However, they also have targets based on the street value of the drugs seized. So not only does valuing drugs higher than they should be make them look more effective, it also makes them look cost-effective.
Of course, it's very easy to blame the police and their stop and searches and their targets, but let's not pretend that Scotland doesn't have a drug problem. It does. And the problem here is generally much worse than throughout the rest of the UK. According to the UN's World Drugs Report, Scotland has a greater per-head use of heroin, ecstasy, and cocaine than almost any other country in the world.
In a recent poll of 31,000 Scots, taken to inform Police Scotland's annual plan, 38 percent of respondents said that their number one priority for the police was drugs. That's fine, and may also account somewhat for the inordinately high prosecution figures. However, it's not the coke-hoovering graphic designers of Glasgow's West End who the police are targeting. It is, almost unquestionably, those living in deprived areas.
Dr. McPhee believes this is down to results. "I think it would be reasonable to conclude that they must be targeting scarce resources, which may or may not be intelligence-led, about where they think most activity which infringes the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 occurs," he said. "That would appear to be specific areas in Scotland that are also where there is most inequality and deprivation. I think it's no secret that by far the majority of people who are attending services for treatment and the majority of people who are incarcerated for infringements of the Misuse of Drugs Act invariably reside in areas characterized by deprivation, no matter what index is used."
Recently, as part of the deal for voting No in the independence referendum, Scotland was told it could have more powers. The Smith Commission was established and people were asked to submit proposals for the laws they wanted Scotland to have. Dr. McPhee and others argued that the country should take control of their own drug laws—to be more like the Portuguese, decriminalizing drugs and defining a clear difference between personal possession and an amount that would get you nicked for intent to supply.
As in Portugal, it's likely this would end up positively impacting the harm caused by drugs in Scotland. It's also a distinct possibility that it would stop so many people being prosecuted and punished for what, elsewhere, would be classed as minor drug offenses.
Or maybe not. Maybe Scotland really does have twice as many drug dealers as the rest of the UK and an extremely competent police force. But that does seem a little unlikely.
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