Senior Scottish Labour MSP accuses Starmer of ‘tacitly endorsing’ drug deaths

The frontbencher has confronted the Labour leader for “placating” the right-wing press by refusing to extend softer drug laws to the rest of Britain.

Keir Starmer under fire for position of drugs reform

Paul Sweeney, shadow minister for employment and public finance in the Scottish Labour Party, has launched an irate attack on the Labour leader, following Starmer’s ruling out of a UK-wide overhaul of drug laws.

Talking to Politico, Sweeney accused Starmer of “tacitly endorsing” drug deaths that may be preventable and “placating” right-leaning newspapers through his refusal to extend the liberalisation of drug laws to the rest of Britain.

In September, the Labour leader shared his backing of softer drug laws following an announcement of the decision to relax drug laws for anyone found in possession of Class A substances in Scotland.

Scotland reforms drugs law

Dorothy Bain QC, Scotland’s Lord Advocate, had announced that individuals caught with Class A substances, like cocaine or heroin, could receive a police warning, rather than being prosecuted.

Laws in Scotland allow police officers to use their discretion to issue warnings to anyone caught with Class B and C drugs, such as cannabis.  Bain’s announcement was made after figures confirmed Scotland still has one of the worst drug death rates in Europe.

Following Bain’s decision, which had backing from Scottish Labour, the discretion to issue warnings has now been extended to Class A substances.

‘Probably the right thing to do’

At the time Starmer had shown support towards the move, saying it was “probably the right thing to do.”

In an interview with ITV, the Labour leader noted how there was a “world of difference” between the reform and “ripping up” drugs laws entirely.

However, this week, Starmer said he will not roll out Scotland’s new Class A drugs policy to the rest of the UK if he becomes Prime Minister.

In announcing he would not support the measures in the rest of Britain, Starmer told the Daily Record: “I think the Lord Advocate has set out principles, but we haven’t seen the detail yet which is coming shortly. So obviously we all need to have a look at what that is.

“I do not think that what happens in Scotland should be of general application across the United Kingdom.”

A ‘no-brainer’

The Labour leader’s position sparked derision from Glasgow-based Scottish Labour frontbencher and lawmaker Paul Sweeney, who said: “Decriminalisation of possession is a no-brainer and anyone who doesn’t want to do it is either ignorant of the issue or is too scared to admit the reality.”

Pointing to what thinks is Starmer’s commitment to winning back support from disenchanted voters in England who had voted Conservative in the last general election, Sweeney added:  

“I think it’s an ill-judged position [Starmer has taken] based on political calculations rather than rational judgment of the evidence.”

Sweeny accused Starmer of “tacitly endorsing” thousands of deaths that could be avoided every year.

“I don’t think that’s a sustainable position, for the sake of placating the Daily Mail.

“Maybe if they got out of Westminster and actually understood the problem then they might have come up with a different view of it,” the Scottish Labour politician added.

Sweeney is not alone in contempt over Starmer’s refusal to roll out similar drugs law reforms across the UK.

In response to Sweeney’s comments, Rob Blackie, of the London Lib Dems, tweeted:

“Labour are terrified of drugs law reform. This is complete cowardice, that leads to people dying and wastes police time.”

What does is take?

Transform Drug Policy Foundation, promoters of public health, human rights and social justice through drug policy reform, asks what does it take for a leader of the Labour Party to stand up for drug policy reform?

“We understand that politics is a matter of compromise and pragmatism, but it should also be a matter of principle and leadership. So, in the light of this latest development we want to ask Sir Keir directly: what would it take for you to treat this seriously?”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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