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On September 29th, SNP MP Tommy Sheppard presented a 10 Minute Rule bill in the House of Commons which, according to Sheppard, "aims to help tackle the drug crisis by decriminalising the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use and declaring a public health emergency".

In the Hansard record of the session, the bill is described as follows:

a Bill to require the Secretary of State to declare problem drug use a public health emergency; to require the Secretary of State to review the effects of welfare sanctions on people who use drugs; to make the Department for Health and Social Care the lead department for drugs policy; to require the Secretary of State to respond publicly to recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; to amend the classification of drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; to make provision for safe drug consumption facilities; to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use; to make provision about the stigmatisation of problem drug use; to amend the Equality Act 2010 to recognise drug dependence as a health condition; and for connected purposes.

However, in his further comments, I was unable to find an explanation of what the tangible effects of this step would be.

The Secretary of State referred to is the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, currently Matt Hancock MP. What is the meaning of the Secretary of State declaring something a public health emergency? Does this trigger extra funding, a requirement for a certain government response of some kind, or some other tangible effect, or is this more of a soft statement indicating that problem drug use should be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue?

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He presumably meant to declare it an emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which would allow the government to exercise various emergency powers without having to pass laws through parliament (see Wikipedia), but it seems partly to be a rhetorical gesture. The CCA allows an emergency to be declared in case of many different types of threats including one that "threatens serious damage" causing "human illness or injury", and allows short-term measures to be taken by ministers and authorities including ministers in the Scottish Government. However, this would not allow permanent changes in drug laws. These powers would seem to allow the UK or Scottish government to temporarily legalise drug injection facilities and other measures Sheppard is calling for.

I can't find any specific statement from Sheppard as to what he intended to do, and there is possibly some verbal hyperbole here. The Civil Contingencies Act and the possibility of declaring a public health emergency have been widely discussed in the context of COVID-19 at the time of Sheppard's motion (e.g. Law Gazette, petition) and therefore Sheppard could expect the connection to be made. There is probably a rhetorical effect intended, to compare the threat from drug abuse to that from COVID-19, and emphasise the severity of the former.

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    I looked at the CCA to answer this question and it seemed unlikely that this was the intended meaning. The CCA is meant for rapid response to an extraordinary crisis and wasn't invoked even for covid-19 It seems unlikely to be required to deal with the long running low numbers, but high impact, issue of drug addictions.
    – Jontia
    Oct 1 '20 at 6:42

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