Glasgow council backs drug decriminalisation

FFS explains: Glasgow’s drug decriminalisation policy

Efforts to tackle Scotland’s drug deaths crisis have been in the news frequently in recent months. 

Glasgow made headlines after it was reported that the city council had “decriminalised” drug use in the city.

Ferret Fact Service explains what happened.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

What did Glasgow City Council do?

The council supported a motion, by SNP councillor Allan Casey, to formally support the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.

It called for “the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal supply” and sought “approval for the council to adopt a formal position in favour of decriminalisation.”

What powers do they have?

While this was reported by some online as a move to actually decriminalise drugs in the city, Glasgow City Council has no powers to do this. The motion was a formalised show of support for decriminalisation proposals which were put forward by the Scottish Government. 

What is the Scottish Government view? 

In July, the Scottish Government announced a new drugs strategy. 

Its central policy was support for decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, stating that much of Scotland’s drug use is hidden and “illegality contributes to the stigma and discrimination people face”. 

The report, presented by drugs and alcohol policy minister Elena Whitham, stated that the UK Government’s current drug policy “inhibits a public health approach” and that the Scottish Government was “limited by the UK’s legal framework within which it must currently operate”.

Scottish Ministers asked the UK Government to reform its laws or devolve power to change drug legislation to the Scottish Parliament, but this was swiftly rejected by Number 10, which said Rishi Sunak was not planning to change his government’s “tough stance” on drugs.

The Glasgow City Council motion also backed another move in the Scottish Government’s report, to pilot safe drug consumption rooms in Glasgow, which will likely be comfirmed in coming weeks.

Where do the powers of drug decriminalisation lie?

Control of drug policy is split between the UK and Scottish governments. While the Scottish Government can legislate around the treatment and prevention of drug problems, control of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is reserved to the UK Government.

This means the Scottish Government is unable to decriminalise drugs without the UK Government changing its policy or devolving powers. 

However, there are areas where Scotland can have a different policy than the UK. 

For example, while illicit drug law is reserved, Scotland has some power to set its own prosecution rules. It is under this power that safe drug consumption rooms are to be piloted in Glasgow. 

A statement published by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) from Scotland’s Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC, said it would “not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility.” 

This means people taking drugs for personal use in a drug consumption room would not be arrested, paving the way for a pilot to take place. 

She continued that this “does not amount to an exclusion zone whereby a range of criminality is tolerated”. 

What’s the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs? 

In places where decriminalisation of drug use has been adopted, you will not be arrested or charged for using drugs or cultivating a personal supply. Technically the drug remains illegal in these areas and it can be an offence to possess it or supply it. But there could be a policy of not enforcing this when possession is under a certain threshold.

People caught in possession may have their drugs confiscated, and may face a small fine or referral to drug treatment services. 

Countries which have a policy of decriminalisation of drugs include Portugal and the Netherlands

Legalisation means the drug is no longer illegal, and can be sold and consumed through licensed premises. Drugs are taxed and production is controlled by local or state authorities.

Cannabis has been legalised in a number of states in the United States, and in Malta and Luxembourg

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles.

All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.

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