Minimum Pricing, Prohibition and Portugal

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By a Newsnet reader

I have yet to be convinced that Minimum pricing of Alcohol will be the solution to Scotland’s crisis relationship with this legal drug.  If we look across the North Sea, as we are frequently advised to do because of the many great successes of Social Democracy to be seen there, we can also see an anomaly in the Minimum Pricing argument.

Yes, Scotland is set to be the first country in the world to legislate a minimum price per unit of alcohol, but in Scandanavian countries Alcohol is taxed heavily, thus driving the price up anyway.  Alcohol is a serious problem in these countries,  as the following map, taken from the Economist,  clearly shows:

British consumption of alcohol does outstrip that of Norway and Sweden, but not of Denmark or Finland.  Taxation of alcohol in Finland and Denmark is higher than in the UK, as can be seen in the map below, taken from the WHO Global Status Report on Health and alcohol in 2011.

So you can clearly see that although higher taxation can be effective, there are obviously other factors in play with dangerously high alcohol consumption.  The cultural argument is well known both here and in Scandinavian countries, spirits are enjoyed liberally and are considered a part of our respective national identities.

Other factors, such as low levels of daylight in winter and vitamin D deficiency could certainly be considered to be common contributing factors, but while we cannot change these factors, we can change our cultural perspective on alcohol, and, be extension other drugs.

Let’s now consider that Scotland doesn’t simply have an alcohol problem but a drug problem in general.  Last year the Global Commission on Drug policy effectively declared the War on Drugs as a failure and produced a report calling for a change in attitude from prohibition and criminalisation of Drugs to treating drugs as a health issue and focusing on education and rehabilitation.  In fact, the opening paragraph of the report was:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Which brings me now to Portugal.  In 2001, the focus of drug policy in Portugal was switched from the criminalisation of drug users to the rehabilitation of drug users.  A full summary can be found here on Wikipedia, but the important factor for me is this.

When someone is found in possession of a personal amount of a drug, or being dangerously out of control under the influence of drugs, instead of being sent to court (unless of course someone else has come to harm in which case they will go to court for that part of their behaviour) they are asked to attend an expert panel not unlike the Children’s panel we have here in Scotland for dealing with most youth crime.  The panel will make recommendations to help the person change their behaviour, including attending rehabilitation centres or taking courses of substitutes like Methadone.

I don’t really see the point of the dividing line of legality we have between alcohol and other drugs in Scotland. I believe that all people with drug issues would benefit greatly from a system like that in place in Portugal.  Instead of spending the night in the cells and then being charged with being in Breach of the Peace, a person with an alcohol problem should be attending a panel of experts who can help them find a course of dealing with their problem.

If a similar thing happens with a heroin, cocaine or amphetamine addict, they should be going in front of exactly the same panel to help them deal with their problem.  Only in the case of other criminal law being broken by someone under the influence should that person end up in a criminal court for their behaviour.  Drugs, including alcohol, are a health issue first and foremost and should be treated as such.  Glassing someone in the pub because you are drunk and out of order is both a health and a criminal issue and should also be treated accordingly.

If all drugs in Scotland were treated equally, with allowances for reasonable use and a system in place to help abusers before they become a criminal problem, then perhaps we could finally deal with our long established problem with drugs.  EU law does not allow for the legalisation of prohibited drugs, but it does leave room for decriminalisation.

Let’s take the problem of supply away from the hands of criminals, as we can see that this does indeed work with Alcohol and Tobacco, and take the problem of the social consequences out of police cells and prisons and allow the police and criminal justice system more time to deal with the violent crime, theft and other genuinely dangerous issues and people.

Of course, this can only really be achieved with Independence, and this is a debate I would like to see become part of the constitutional process after the Yes vote in 2014.