Ardent drug reform advocate Ronnie Cowan MP celebrates SNP’s “initial steps”

Caitlin Logan

SNP conference has agreed drug policy should be devolved and treated as health issue

Ronnie Cowan MP (SNP), vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drugs policy reform at Westminister and proponent of drug decriminalisation spoke to CommonSpace about the SNP’s commitment to drug policy reform at the party conference.

A resolution and amendment on drug policy were both passed at the SNP conference on Monday, agreeing in loose terms that the current policy requires comprehensive review in line with a public health – as opposed to a criminal justice – approach, and that the party should push for all drug powers to be devolved.  

Speaking in favour of the resolution, which was carried with overwhelming support, were National Council member Josh Mennie, Ronnie Cowan MP, Councillor Christina Cannon, and Aileen Campbell MSP, Minister for Public Health and Sport.  

Ronnie Cowan told CommonSpace that, while the resolution does not lay out the specifics at this stage, he was optimistic that it was a step in the right direction: “I keep saying it’s ‘nudge, nudge’, because these things are a journey.

“We need the powers to shape the sort of Scotland we want to live in, to actually focus people’s minds on what can we do with this.” Ronnie Cowan MP

“You have to set where you want to go to and you have to take the initial steps to go there. Had conference said ‘no we’re not going to do this’, that would have left me thinking , ‘where do we go with this?’ Because the same old isn’t working.

“We know the war on drugs hasn’t been effective in killing drug addiction, it hasn’t been effective in resolving drug abuse, so we have to look at different strategies.

“The first step that a lot of people are now saying – which two or three years ago they weren’t’ saying – is that this is a public health issue. And that might become a bit trite – people say ‘we know that, we know that’ – but it’s taken us quite a while just to get people to say that it’s not a criminal justice thing.

“I’m so pleased, and it didn’t just happen today at conference. Aileen Campbell has been behind this, her department has recognised the fact that this has to be a health issue.”

Along with other backers of the resolution, Cowan also supported the amendment to devolve all drug policy powers to the Scottish Parliament. This, he said, is an important step in making the case for Scottish independence.

“I’ve got a couple of issues I’m interested in – prostitution laws, gambling laws, drug laws, basic income, all sorts of things – and in my mind, when I’m thinking about those issues, I’m designing and defining the Scotland I want to live in as an independent country”, he said.

“So that when it happens, we’re in a position where we can say, ‘that’s the sort of country we want to have’. We want to keep our NHS free for everybody, we want to keep education free for everybody, and we want this sort of policy on the things I’ve just mentioned.

“We need the powers to shape the sort of Scotland we want to live in, to actually focus people’s minds on this – on what can we do with this.”

Cowan said that the policy of the UK Government made clear why Scotland needs to pave its own way on the issue.

“What I genuinely think we will get to is where we control the production and the distribution, and therefore the quality and the purity of drugs.” Ronnie Cowan MP

“I’m part of UK parliament, and the UK drug policy which was announced maybe four, five weeks ago – they did a big drug policy review – and they basically walked away from all responsibility,” he said.

“They said, ‘yeah, yeah, we’ll put some more money into supporting people with addiction problems’, but they still took the attitude that ‘we’ll hammer down hard on criminals’. And ‘criminals’ can be people caught with drugs for their own personal use. I don’t see it as that.”

SNP member Daniel Forbes spoke against the resolution at conference, arguing that families who have been “tragically affected” by addiction are looking for stronger measures and may view the proposal as contentious.

Forbes added: “It only needs for one person to take a substance once for there to be an irreversible reaction that can have fatal consequences.”

Cowan said he felt this position was based on a misconception: “The young chap who spoke against the motion seemed to be thinking what we’re trying to do is say ‘oh, drugs for everybody’. We’re not.

“What we’re saying is that it has to be in a controlled environment, and you cannot control it while it’s illegal. People are going to dealers who are getting a product from somewhere, which contains something, and then adding something else to it, so they can get their cut of the profit.

“Drug deaths in Scotland have increased. I can almost guarantee you that drug did not come directly to Scotland, it’s been around a few places before it came here and every single destination it’s been to it’s been cut again with another product which is not a psychoactive substance.

“It’s a long way down the road, but what I genuinely think we will get to is where we control the production and the distribution, and therefore the quality and the purity of drugs as we do with alcohol.”

Cowan cited the example of Portugal, where drugs were decriminalised in 2001, as a model of good practice: “In Portugal, if you’re caught with drugs for your own personal use, they’ll still say to you, ‘what are you doing with these drugs?’

“They’ll then try to identify if you’ve got an addiction problem, and if you’ve got a problem they step in and try to help you.

“If young kids are caught with drugs they have to go in front of a panel, they have to bring a parent or guardian with them, and they are educated and are told, ‘you don’t know what you’re taking there, you could do damage’, and actually they are veering people away from taking drugs.

“There’s a huge problem with alcohol in Scotland, I absolutely get that, but imagine if that was illegal.” Ronnie Cowan MP

“It’s not the sort of free flowing, drugs for everyone type attitude. It’s very much a case of, let’s control what’s happening here, in the same way we do with alcohol and tobacco.”

Cowan acknowledged that much improvement is needed in tackling alcohol addiction in Scotland, and argued that the picture would be far worse if alcohol was made illegal.

“In America during prohibition, you didn’t go to your local club and drink beer, because brewing and transporting beer was too cumbersome. So alcohol got smaller and smaller and smaller, and stronger and stronger and stronger, until people were killing themselves, because it was made in a backroom somewhere.

“Gangsters would literally shoot at each other in turf wars. We don’t have that with alcohol because it’s been legalised.

“There’s a huge problem with alcohol in Scotland, I absolutely get that, but imagine if that was illegal.”

Moving to a public health approach, Cowan said, is necessary to properly address the issue and support people with addictions.

 “In Portugal, 95 per cent of the people who step forward and say ‘I have a problem, I need help’, are through self referral. They’ve got no fear of stepping forward.

“In the UK, these people are being pushed to the margins and aren’t getting the help and support they require, which is one of the reasons why we’ve got so many deaths.

“We can do something with educating people -hopefully better than we have done previously – but when it comes to drugs, if we keep pushing people into the shadows, they’ll never step forward.”

Picture courtesy of Ronnie Cowan MP

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