GLASGOW — A senior Scottish Labour politician launched a furious attack on Keir Starmer after the U.K. Labour leader made clear he would not extend a liberalizing drug law to the rest of Britain.
Paul Sweeney, shadow minister for employment and public finance in the Scottish Labour Party, accused Starmer of “tacitly endorsing” preventable drug deaths and “placating” right-leaning newspapers by ruling out a U.K.-wide overhaul of drug laws.
The Scottish government, which has control of drugs policy as part of the U.K.’s devolution settlement, announced a relaxation of its own laws in September as it grapples with record-high drug deaths.
The move would allow police officers to warn, rather than prosecute, Scots found with Class A substances like heroin and cocaine, in a move some experts have described as effective decriminalization for those drugs.
Starmer initially offered limited support for the change, as did Labour’s affiliated Scottish party. But when asked about the issue four weeks later by the Daily Record, the Labour leader said he would not change the law in the U.K. as a whole if he became prime minister.
“One of the benefits of devolution was to allow each of the nations to look separately in context at the challenges that it has,” Starmer told the paper. “But if I was prime minister of the United Kingdom, I would not be introducing that to the United Kingdom.”
That position prompted a strident attack from Sweeney, a Glasgow-based Scottish Labour lawmaker and frontbencher who endorsed Starmer in Labour’s 2020 leadership election.
“Decriminalization 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,” Sweeney said.
“I think it’s an ill-judged position [Starmer has taken] based on political calculations rather than rational judgment of the evidence,” he added, pointing to what he sees as a focus from Starmer on winning back disillusioned voters in England who turned to the Conservatives in the last general election.
Though Scotland’s relaxed drug laws don’t allow for their use, there has been a push among some members of the Scottish government and campaigners to introduce supervised consumption rooms, which are also used in European countries including Denmark, Germany and Portugal.
Sweeney was involved in a small-scale pilot of a consumption room in Glasgow and is preparing to introduce legislation at the Scottish Parliament that would licence overdose prevention facilities in Scotland — something else Starmer has indicated he does not support.
“I’d like Keir to come and visit the safe consumption facility, because I think if you bother to engage with how it works you’d probably come away with a very different view of the matter,” Sweeney said.
“The current position around [drug deaths] is not sustainable to hold. So sooner rather than later you might as well just get on with it,” he said. “Because effectively you’re tacitly endorsing the deaths of 1,000s of people that could be avoided every year and 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,” he added.
A Labour official pointed to Starmer’s words and said his position was informed by his five years as the director of public prosecutions.