Leading public health bodies call for decriminalisation of drugs

Report from Royal Society for Public Health and Faculty of Public Health says misuse of drugs should be a health issue, not a criminal one

The UK’s two leading public health bodies, representing thousands of doctors and other professionals, are making an unprecedented call for the personal possession and use of drugs to be decriminalised.

The war on drugs has done more harm than good, say the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health. They argue that drug misuse should be a health issue, not a matter for the courts and prisons, which have not succeeded in deterring people from taking drugs. More people than ever before are being harmed by drugs and then harmed again by the punishment meted out, instead of being helped to kick or contain the habit, they say.

“We have taken the view that it is time for endorsing a different approach,” said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society. “We have gone to our stakeholders and asked the public and tried to gain some consensus from our community and the public, because that is very important.”

The society commissioned a poll of more than 2,000 UK adults and found that more than half – 56% – agreed that drug users in their local area ought to be referred for treatment, rather than charged with a criminal offence. Fewer than a quarter – 23% – disagreed.

The public health specialists, whose work involves preventing disease through measures such as helping people to quit smoking, say there should be no leniency for those who sell drugs. “We think that people who are dealing drugs and the producers and suppliers absolutely should be prosecuted,” said Cramer. “But for people who have got a drug problem, why treat them differently from someone who has an alcohol problem or an obesity problem?”

The society has produced a report, Taking a New Line on Drugs, which the faculty has endorsed. A key recommendation is that all children and young people learn about drugs in school through personal, social, health and economic education (PHSE). “One of the things that strikes us in public health is how important the education piece is – and that we are missing,” said Cramer. Where there is provision, she said, “it is patchy; it depends on the school”.

The experts also want lead responsibility for drug policy to be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health, where it should be aligned more closely with alcohol and tobacco strategies. Drugs should be better classified according to the harm they do, the bodies argue, adding that the current classification confuses the public.

Alcohol tops the society’s list of the 10 most harmful drugs, with heroin second and crack cocaine third. Tobacco is in sixth place, while cannabis is eighth.

The report is being published before the anticipated release of the government’s drug strategy, which is expected some time after the referendum. It admires the Portuguese model, in which drug possession is still illegal, but users are referred to treatment and support programmes, rather than being prosecuted. It argues that prosecution and jail sentences cause further harm, including greater exposure to drugs in prison and the severing of family relationships. They are also barriers to education and employment, the report says.

Professor John Middleton, president of the faculty, said: “We need a new, people-centred approach to drug policy, rooted in public health and the best available evidence. This report is an important part of a growing, powerful evidence base that sets out what that approach should look like.

“The time for reframing the global approach to illicit drugs is long overdue. The imbalance between criminal justice and health approaches to illicit drugs is counterproductive. Criminalisation and incarceration for minor, non-violent offences worsen problems linked to illicit drug use, such as social inequality, violence and infection. Possession and use should be decriminalised and health approaches prioritised.”

Professor David Nutt, who heads the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: “I fully support the recommendations in this report. 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.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “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.”

He said there had been a drop in drug misuse over the last decade and more people are recovering from dependency now than in 2009/10.


Sarah Boseley Health editor

The GuardianTramp

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