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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 22 May 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Police Call Handling, One Minute’s Silence, Police Call Handling, Disability Employment Gap, Presiding Officer’s Ruling, Decision Time, Restorative Justice


Topical Question Time

Drugs Strategy

1. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether its new drugs strategy will seek to support, rather than penalise, people in possession and intending to personally use small amounts of drugs. (S5T-01093)

The Minister for Public Health and Sport (Aileen Campbell)

The new strategy will prioritise the health needs of people in our society who are harmed by their substance use, while working with Police Scotland and others to use the law against those who seek to profit from that.

A number of outcomes are available to the police, prosecutors and the courts so that, where appropriate, penalisation is avoided. Such outcomes include recorded police warnings, diversion from prosecution and rehabilitative court orders such as drug treatment and testing orders. Prosecution decisions are, of course, for independent prosecutors, and sentencing decisions are a matter for the independent courts. The law in this regard is reserved under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and the available outcomes reflect the fact that it is not always in the public interest to punish.

Let me be clear: the Scottish Government wants to prevent the harm that comes from people using drugs by adopting a public health approach to tackling the challenges that Scotland faces and by being innovative in our solutions, irrespective of whether they are initially controversial or unpopular. That is why I will meet the United Kingdom Government to discuss, primarily, Glasgow’s efforts to establish a supervised injecting facility, along with wider issues to do with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Liam McArthur

Dr Roy Robertson was right to say that it is time to “support rather than penalise” people who misuse drugs. The police agree. It is senseless to send to prison someone who is caught in possession of drugs for their personal use, but figures that I acquired recently after asking a parliamentary question show that that still happens on more than 200 occasions a year, with thousands more people being handed fines.

What is the point of sending someone whose only crime is the misuse of drugs to a place such as HM Prison Addiewell? In a study, half the people who were released from that prison tested positive for illegal drugs. Does the minister agree that there is no point in such an approach? Will the Scottish Government’s strategy implement a shift to treatment and education?

Aileen Campbell

I appreciate the way in which Liam McArthur has articulated the issue. We very much value Roy Robertson’s comments and his role on our partnership for action on drugs in Scotland group; he provides us with a lot of advice on the development of drugs policy.

We are refreshing our drugs and alcohol strategy. The new strategy will recognise that, for many people, having an addiction problem does not mean that they should necessarily be punished and penalised through the court process. There is a requirement to recognise people’s holistic needs. People might require help and support around the isolation that they feel or the trauma that they have experienced, and a host of other issues might require to be tackled. The more general point that Liam McArthur articulated will absolutely be taken forward in our new strategy’s approach.

Liam McArthur

The minister referred to the strategy that was agreed as part of the budget deal with the Conservatives back in 2008. Since then, we have seen drug-related deaths reach a record high. Drug-related hospitalisations have gone up 50 per cent over the past decade.

There are alternatives to imprisoning people, and ministers could have done more before now. The tsunami of drug-related harm in Scotland should be the motivation for backing drug reform. Where the Government has the power and flexibility to do so, will it prevent reform from stalling because of arguments with Westminster about powers? Will the minister seek and publish independent legal advice on how far the Government can go towards the radical reform that we need?

Aileen Campbell

The rise in drug-related deaths is something that we need to tackle head on. That is why in my initial response to Liam McArthur I said that we need to be innovative in our solutions, even if they are initially controversial or unpopular. It is not tolerable to see drug-related deaths rise.

We need to understand the group of people who have been using drugs for a number of years and have complex and chaotic lives. We need to treat and support those people and help them to cope, as best we can. That is why we are refreshing our drugs strategy. It is a trend that has been seen since the 1990s that we have an ageing cohort of people who have been using drugs for a number of years. The programme for government also committed an extra £20 million to ensure that we can be innovative in our approach to tackling drug addiction in Scotland and can embed the public health approach that we need to see happening across the country.

However, we cannot get away from the fact that powers under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 are reserved and we do not have powers to do all the things that we—or the lion’s share of parliamentarians here—want to do, an example of which we can see in the proposals for Glasgow. I say that not simply because it would be convenient for us to duck out of tackling the issue head on. We want to do what we can, which is why I seek to engage with the UK Government to find out what flexibility it is willing to offer. If it will not offer any, we will have to ask it to devolve the powers to us in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

We have had three questions and three quite long answers. We have seven other supplementaries on this subject, all of which I would like to get in if I can. However, I will suspend business at 14:18 in order to move on to the ministerial statement, so members should try to be quite quick with those questions.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Liam McArthur referred to Dr Robertson’s recommendation that people who have been caught with small amounts of illegal substances should no longer be prosecuted. However, illegal drug use is causing real harm to people and is a blight on our communities, so the answer to the problem is not a soft-touch approach. A potential dealer or user must know that they could face a criminal penalty for their actions. Will the minister take this opportunity to say to communities, families and law-abiding citizens that she will rule out that proposal and focus instead on helping drug users to abstain from using in the first place?

Aileen Campbell

I will be quite short in my response. Describing the Government’s approach as “soft-touch” totally misses the point, which is that it tries to help vulnerable people to cope better with their addictions. As I said in my initial answer to Liam McArthur, although we will seek to prioritise the health needs of those in our society who have been harmed by their substance use, we will continue to work with Police Scotland to use the law against those who seek to profit from it.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Labour agrees with the Scottish Government’s broad intent regarding the change in emphasis on drug issues from criminal justice to health. Nevertheless, I echo Liam McArthur’s point. The Government is keen to stress the areas that are outwith its control and powers, but what consideration has it given to the powers that it does have—for example, those on police policy and practice and the role of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in changing the emphasis? Such areas could have a real impact and the Government has control over them.

Aileen Campbell

We have a strong police presence on our PADS group, so we explore how we might use the police and a host of other partners to help us to deal far more effectively with those who experience substance use challenges in their lives.

However, I go back to my point that we cannot ignore the fact that the powers under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 are reserved. I do not think that, during the work of the Smith commission, any party here called for those powers to be devolved, although I will be happy to be proved wrong if that should be the case. We need to have the 1971 act’s powers here in order to do some of the innovative things that people want us to proceed with. Of course, within the powers that we have, we will explore every option—even if, as I said in my answer to Liam McArthur, they seem to be unpopular or controversial. We face a challenge that needs to be met with public health answers.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I am sure that, like me, the minister would differentiate between legalisation and decriminalisation. On decriminalisation for possession of a small quantity of drugs, I hear what the minister has to say about the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 but I ask whether the Government will pursue whether that policy could be implemented by the COPFS—for example, in decriminalising the use of cannabis for the alleviation of pain.

Aileen Campbell

I am under time pressure, but I will be happy to get back to Christine Grahame on the issue of pain management that she has raised. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is in continuing discussions with a number of members with constituency interests on the alleviation of pain that can be had from drugs that, at the moment, may be classed as illegal. However, there are a host of other ways in which we can progress such an approach through existing systems to enable drugs to come online and to allow people to get support for their conditions.

As I said in my answer to Liam McArthur, a number of alternative outcomes are available to prosecutors, because we recognise that it is not always in the public interest to punish people. I reiterate that the broad thrust of our new drug and alcohol strategy is to take a public health approach to tackling the challenges that we face.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The minister has talked about the change of emphasis from a criminal justice approach to a health approach, but she will have seen today’s news reports that suggest that people who are addicted to drugs are waiting weeks for appointments—which means that, technically, the target is being met—and are then having to wait for up to six months for treatment. Will the minister commit to looking into those shocking waiting times and ensuring that people who need help—in particular, those who are actively seeking help—do not have to wait months to begin their treatment?

Aileen Campbell

The recently established target has been one of the successes of the current strategy, but we understand that more needs to be done. That is why £20 million has been pledged, through the programme for government, to provide an appropriate and timely medical response to the extremely vulnerable people who cannot wait for their treatment. The new strategy gives us an opportunity to do that. In addition, we have commissioned ISD Scotland to develop an integrated drug and alcohol information system, which will help us to capture the necessary information far more clearly and effectively.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

It is simply not good enough for the Tories to trot out, “Just say no.” I note and welcome the minister’s planned meeting with the UK Government, but can she please outline what meetings with the UK Government have already taken place and detail what was discussed at them?

Aileen Campbell

I have been attempting to meet the UK Government on the matter for some time, and I will endeavour to keep the member informed as those meetings progress. We hope to have such a meeting in the coming months. We want the UK Government to understand that we are making our proposals not just for constitutional convenience but because of the rising number of drug deaths and the need to meet the challenges that are faced in Glasgow, in particular, through a public health response.

I will be happy to keep Mr Finnie informed as our meetings with the UK Government progress. We want the UK Government to understand that we largely have parliamentary backing for the proposals in Glasgow and our desire to make a significant improvement in tackling the challenges that are faced there.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Everybody knows that the Government’s drugs policy is failing. More people are dying and the streets are awash with drugs. Will the minister consider working across the Parliament on this vital issue? Will she consider co-ordinating, with the support of health and social policy specialists, a visit by a cross-party deputation to Portugal to see how that country has reversed its appalling rates of drug deaths, infection and addiction? Will she also please ignore the irresponsible stupidity of Liam Kerr?

The Presiding Officer

Be careful with personal attacks like that, please.

Aileen Campbell

I broadly agree with what Neil Findlay says, including what he says about the need to learn from other countries and the importance of working across the Parliament. We have a meeting coming up soon at which I can engage with Mr Findlay on an issue about which I know he feels very strongly.

It is irresponsible to use the language that Liam Kerr used in his question, because it is an extremely important issue and the situation is much more nuanced than that. We must approach it in a mature and level-headed way. That is why I have engaged with officials in Australia and why, when I was in Dublin recently, I visited the people who are taking forward supervised injection facilities there. I want to understand the challenges that they face and learn from their innovative solutions. Of course, we will also look at what Portugal is doing.

My commitment is to work across the Parliament to ensure that, where possible, we have cross-party consensus on our new strategy so that we can deliver the best outcomes for the people of Scotland and, in particular, the people whom we are talking about, who are extremely vulnerable.