Leading health bodies call for new approach to tackling illicit drug use

Man smoking

Two public health bodies are calling for a new approach to tackling illicit drug use in the UK – by decriminalising possession and personal use and instead focus greater resources on treatment and education for people who have a drug dependency.

In the report, ‘Taking A New Line On Drugs’, the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health claim the existing approach to drug policy – dubbed the ‘war on drugs’ – has failed. The authors suggest that criminal sanctions have failed to deter people from using illegal drugs and may instead present a barrier to seeking appropriate help and treatment, serving to perpetuate the cycle of addiction which in turn can undermine people’s life chances. Those that supply and deal illicit drugs should, however, still be prosecuted, say the report authors.

The report suggests that drug dependency – as with alcohol and tobacco dependency – should be dealt with as a health issue as opposed to a criminal issue, and also calls for policy responsibility to be transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health.

The report authors point to the benefits of the existing Portuguese system, where people who have been found to use drugs – instead of being penalised – are offered support and treatment.

illegal drug

Drug users driven to “margins of society”

Royal Society for Public Health chief executive Shirley Cramer says: "For too long, UK and global drugs strategies have pursued reductions in drug use as an end in itself, failing to recognise that harsh criminal sanctions have pushed vulnerable people in need of treatment to the margins of society, driving up harm to health and wellbeing even as overall use falls. On many levels, in terms of the public's health, the 'war on drugs' has failed.

"The time has come for a new approach, where we recognise that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and that those who misuse drugs are in need of treatment and support - not criminals in need of punishment."

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Drug users criminalised while “alcohol and tobacco remain legal”

Baroness Molly Meacher, speaking on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, says the current system "criminalises some users of psychoactive drugs whilst very harmful psychoactive drugs including alcohol and tobacco remain legal".

A Home Office spokesman says: "The UK's approach on drugs remains clear - we must prevent drug use in our communities and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery.  At the same time, we have to stop the supply of illegal drugs and tackle the organised crime behind the drugs trade."

The spokesman says drug misuse has declined in recent years and more people are now recovering from dependency compared to figures from 2009-10.

Drug-related deaths “rising in the UK”

Dr Peter Byrne, Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Associate Registrar for Public Mental Health says: “Evidence supports decriminalising drug misuse by individuals – moving from a criminal justice system that fails them and us, and towards treatments that promote health and reduce harm. This is not to argue that toxic, life-wrecking drugs are made legal. We are concerned that drug related deaths are rising in the UK, reflecting policy failures and ongoing major reductions in addictions’ services.”

Professor David Nutt, Head of the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, says he supports the recommendations. He says: “The current government approach of blindly prosecuting drug users, rather than trying to reduce the rising tide of drug harms, particularly deaths from alcohol, heroin and cocaine, in fact leads to more damage to individuals and society – and more costs to the taxpayer.”


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