Time for a drugs policy that is compassionate, not vindictive

sean mortonSean Morton, standing for selection to the Highlands and Islands Regional List, argues that it’s time to end our “tough” approach to justice policy, and suggests a radical overhaul of Labour’s policy on drugs.


I have noticed over the last few days that the press and the political parties are drawing up the battle lines for the election. And I have noticed, to my dismay, that justice isn’t really featuring anywhere. I believe if we take on the SNP – head and heart – on justice policy, we will win that fight.

The SNP have displayed two objectives with respect to justice policy. The first, is a desire to portray themselves as competent managers. On this, they have demonstrably failed and we have made considerable inroads in highlighting this. The second objective is a desire to highlight Scottish justice policy as distinctive, in particular from the rest of the UK. With respect to this second objective, we’ve played right into the Nats’ hands by allowing them to paint themselves as the custodians of a distinctly Scottish, more liberal and welfarist justice policy, when the exact opposite is in fact the case.

In contrast, the only objective that can be discerned from Labour’s justice policies in recent years is a desire to appear “tough”. Politicians who claim to be tough on crime are not in short supply – which makes it difficult to carve out a distinctive position, key to gaining a political edge.

The SNP have successfully managed to pull off a remarkable trick, in sounding liberal and progressive while pursuing some of the most illiberal and conservative justice policies Scotland has ever seen. With almost every other politician in Scotland also adopting a conservative stance, it’s difficult to attack the SNP for this blatant betrayal of their liberal rhetoric. Furthermore, with every politician for as long as I can remember peddling the same message with public perceptions of crime seldom shifting, you have to ask whether any voters actually believe any politicians’ claims to be tough at all.

It’s time to end the dogmatic populism that Labour has attached to justice policy. It doesn’t work, it’s not distinctive, and people don’t buy it anyway.

For years, our flagship justice policy was “carry a knife, go to jail”. It’s a policy that’s flawed for a number of reasons. First, while knife crime remains a serious worry in many Scottish communities, it is not a universal concern. It was designed to target voters in traditional Labour areas – and it didn’t even work.

Second, it’s expensive. All of the evidence suggests that short sentences have little rehabilitative effect whatsoever, which means that in order for the policy to have the desired effect, quite lengthy sentences would be required, costing a lot of money. People rightly ask how such a policy could be paid for.

Third, and most importantly, at a criminological level such a policy fundamentally won’t work. Put yourself in the shoes of a young man who puts a knife in his pocket every time he goes out. Why do you think he does that? As a youth worker, it’s a question I often had to ask myself. And the answer is simple: they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the other people with knives – because they don’t exist within the bounds of what most of us would consider to be normal society. They feel the police, the law, and the courts don’t protect them – so they have to protect themselves. So if they think the police, the law, and the courts impotent, why would they think they’re a deterrent? Young people who go out with a knife in their pocket are afraid of being stabbed; they’re not afraid of a few weeks in the clink.

But what we need badly in our justice policy is a new approach to drugs. I can’t think of a crime that tears more families and communities apart like the drug trade does. But we judge people affected by it far too harshly. Many ordinary people have taken drugs, and all of us know people who take drugs or have taken drugs at some point in their lives. Some of us even know people who have become addicted, and the least fortunate among us have even lost loved ones to the scourge of drugs. We need to recognise that people who have taken and become addicted to drugs are themselves victims of crime.

There’s some idea that it’s just cities that have a drug problem. That’s just plain wrong. Every little village in my ward has more than one family struggling to help a loved-one beat drugs. I have known too many people who have lost the fight. And what’s the political response? Tougher rhetoric. It’s all wrong. We need to be tougher on the causes of addiction and kinder on the families who are struggling.

There are a number of things I believe we should do.

  • As a first step, we should mandate that anyone found in possession of small quantities of drugs for the first time should receive cautions and referral for treatment – not prosecutions. It’s time we gave drug users the treatment their doctors say they need, not the punishment the Daily Mail says they deserve.
  • Second, we should make available better support for relatives to help them deal with the problems of drug addicted family members. 24/7 helplines and online advice are a must. People can find themselves in their hour of need at any time of the day or night.
  • Third, we must make it the law and make it public and plain that when someone is overdosing nobody should be afraid to call for help. People should know that they will not be in trouble with the police for saving a life, and that the person overdosing will not be in trouble once they are safe and sound.
  • And finally, we must provide resources to those who have come through their battle with drugs who want to tell their story to anyone who will listen: the police, health boards, councils and schools most of all.

Labour has successfully held the SNP’s feet to the fire over their management of justice issues – in particular stop and search, Police Scotland, and the new women’s prison. But with respect to policy, for too long, the SNP has managed to get away with talking liberal while being conservative. We can’t attack them for that from a conservative position. It’s time Scottish Labour carved out a new position on justice – more liberal, more welfarist, and more distinctive.

We can take on the SNP if we stand for doing right by the real victims, their families and their communities. By listening to our heads and our hearts we can be a more just society without being a vindictive one.

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14 thoughts on “Time for a drugs policy that is compassionate, not vindictive

  1. (I made the following points in response to an earlier attempt to get a better debate on this subject)

    In former times, those suffering from communicable diseases (for example,Scarlet Fever and TB) were cared for in sanatoria, where they received treatment for their illness and at the same time potential contagion was removed from their communities. This model could be adopted for drug abusers, whose addiction is a disease which is as intractable and as infectious as these earlier complaints.

    Drug addiction sufferers could be required to live at comfortable locations with stimulating programmes they would receive clinical heroin or undertake rehab programmes according to their individual needs. They could be required and permitted to stay there until they could prove that their wellness was sufficient to permit them to re-enter society.

    Drugs sanatoria would resemble luxury resorts, but would still be less expensive than the current failing system.

    The current position removes addicts from communities, except that they are criminalised by imprisonment (instead of receiving sympathy as ill people), receive insufficient treatment and usually return to a life of dependency – not only on drugs but also on criminality.

    1. I see. The idea is to introduce a 2 tier recovery system based on an ability to pay. Private clinics treating the well off self addicted while the addicts who cant afford to support their habit and who resort to crime in order to gain the means to pay for it wont be able to take advantage of this new 2 tier sympathy for the self inflicted.

      How very New Labour Old Tory.

      Even when you pretend to sympathise with the afflicted you cant get out of the habit of distinguishing and sympathising on the basis of wealth and influence.

      Kind of smacks of support for Privatising another service within the NHS.

      1. To be fair Mike, I don’t think that is what Mr Russell is advocating. I get the impression these “sanatoria” would be free for all addicts.

        It may or may not be cheaper than current methods for addressing the problem of addiction to heroin etc, however, woe betide any party that tries to implement such a scheme. The tsunami of opposition from ALL sides (including “within”) would be enormous.

        Trying to persuade the public that the person who invaded their home, stole their possessions and left their family devastated should be sent to a “luxury resort” will be “difficult” to say the least.

        1. “To be fair Mike, I don’t think that is what Mr Russell is advocating. I get the impression these “sanatoria” would be free for all addicts.”

          Which of course is ludicrous because they would be run as private enterprises relying on profits in order to exist.

          If the Sanatoria cannot or will not charge its clients then it will have to rely on some kind of Government PFI arrangement.

          In other words like I said take the existing charge of care out of the NHS and put it in the Private sector.

          A long winded smoke and mirrors approach to promoting further Privatisation of Health.

    2. Hi Peter

      I don’t think addiction and communicable disease is really a valid comparison. With addiction there appears to be very complex genetic and environmental risk factors when it drug use. It’s not a simple case of removing someone from their environment, getting them ‘clean’ and then dumping them back into their same old environment. It’s certainly very different to someone having TB. Addiction can’t be cured by isolating addicts from society, and addiction isn’t something that you can catch – there are genetic risk factors involved.

      What you seem to be suggesting is to send addicts to a different kind of prison – one which has comfy couches and no curfew. Addiction should be a medical issue, not a crime. We shouldn’t be locking people up for being addicts. We should be treating them out in society. I am sure these stimulating programmes could be delivered without locking addicts up in a resort – and it would probably be far more successful at that.

  2. As usual you forget to mention that the crime rate in Scotland under this government is now the lowest it has been in forty years. Maybe their a lot more competent than you want to admit.

  3. Without devolving the misuse of drugs act we can’t decrimanlise drugs (which would be my preferred option) but with some imagination we should be able to get to a health centred portugese model fairly easily.

    1. Decriminalising drugs want decriminalise the methods used to obtain the money to buy them. Its a habit that needs daily feeding and paid for in advance. Unless of course the idea is to provide them on the NHS. Farms converted to poppy fields perhaps?

  4. There is no Government anywhere in the world ever who has managed to get crime any crime agenda right or satisfactory because it simply cant be done.
    As long as society has laws there will always be those who break them. The best that can be hoped for is to keep it manageable and not let crime overwhelm society to the extent of anarchy and criminal fiefdom.
    As pointed out previously the Scottish Government has so far the best record on crime statistics ever recorded in Scotland. Better than any effort from previous Labour Governments. Harping on about inevitable failures in keeping all crime in check is not going to be a vote winner but will highlight only the lack of real complaint you actually have over a job in Government well done.

  5. “Labour has successfully held the SNP’s feet to the fire over their management of justice issues”

    Really? In what way has this success manifested itself? An increase in popularity for Labour in Scotland perhaps?

    Every article a work of art in the field of self delusion and deceit.

  6. “I believe if we take on the SNP – head and heart – on justice policy, we will win that fight.”

    Your first problem is trying to convince the electorate that Labour actually has a head or heart and is not all spin and deception.

    Anybody care to explain how Labour could even attempt to go about doing that much?

  7. “But with respect to policy, for too long, the SNP has managed to get away with talking liberal while being conservative. We can’t attack them for that from a conservative position. It’s time Scottish Labour carved out a new position on justice – more liberal, more welfarist, and more distinctive.”

    And yet if the present Scottish Government had taken the light approach to crime and had not achieved record levels of statistical success people such as yourself would be writing articles complaining about how ineffective the Scottish Governments justice program was and how they had allowed crime to get out of control.

    Once again all I see is SNP bad and once again its based on the FACT that Labour would condemn any approach in policy direction the SNP took even when they agree and support it in Parliament.

    Opposition for opposition sake.

    Look again here’s a wee bit of really good and worthwhile advice. Stop concentrating on “SNP BAD” and start doing something real and convincing to show the electorate that Labour is Good because all of this SNP Bad business is failing badly due to the fact that people KNOW that Labour are far worse in every aspect policy ideology and intent.

    1. I agree with every word of Mike’s post. Was going to write something similar myself but that is no longer necessary 🙂

  8. I’m not sure about the focus of your article? You start off on how the SNP have failed in regards to knife crime, and it seems that in conclusion what we need is a more compassionate drugs policy. What about the SNP drugs policy? Should we not compare apples with apples?

    In 2009 it was Labour who sacked David Nutt from his advisory position when he pointed out that our drugs policy differs greatly from the science on what drugs are harmful to the individual and to society. Is there a feeling within Labour now to change drugs policy? Is this a realistic expectation? Has their been a shift in attitude?

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