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Criminal sanctions fail to curb illegal drug use

Stop criminalising personal possession of all illegal drugs, say public health experts

Louise Prime

Thursday, 16 June 2016

We should stop criminalising personal possession and use of all illegal drugs, two of the UK’s leading public health organisations insisted this morning. They said the current approach to reducing harm from drugs is failing, and that criminalising so many people has made illegal drugs much more dangerous than they might be in a regulated market.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) have proposed a package of measures aimed at moving UK drugs strategy away from a predominantly criminal justice approach towards one based on public health and harm reduction. The RSPH argues in its latest report Taking a new line on drugs that a new approach is needed because although overall drug use has fallen in recent years, drug-related harm – including drug-related death – has continued to rise.

The report is endorsed by the FPH and backed by Parliamentarians, drugs reform charities and law enforcement groups, and is published ahead of the government’s expected drugs strategy.
RSPH and FPH advocate a Portuguese-style model in which drug possession is still prohibited but users are referred to treatment and support programmes, rather than charged with a criminal offence; producers and suppliers are still prosecuted. International research has suggested that this could lead to significant reductions in many forms of drug-related harm, without promoting increases in problematic use. The RSPH reported that a representative poll of more than 2,000 UK adults found more than half (56%) agreed that drug users in their area should be referred to treatment, rather than charged with a criminal offence; less than a quarter (23%) disagreed.

In her foreword to the report, RSPH chair Dr Fiona Sim said: “Despite an approach centred around prohibition and law enforcement, this policy has failed to curtail demand or supply, or reduce the harm that drugs cause. We have also tended to view legal and illegal drugs differently, when the evidence suggests that there is similarity in the harm they cause to health and wellbeing, and that in some cases certain illegal drugs may cause lower levels of harm than some legal substances …
“It has criminalised and stigmatised a significant proportion of the population, many of whom are the most vulnerable people in society. It has rendered illegal drugs very much more dangerous than they might be in a regulated market.”

The report’s other key recommendations include:

  • universal provision of evidence-based drugs education to young people through statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education in schools.
  • moving lead responsibility for drugs strategy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and aligning more closely with alcohol and tobacco strategies.
  • use of evidence-based drug harm profiles to inform enforcement priorities and public health messaging.

Baroness Molly Meacher, speaking on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, said: “The valuable work of health professionals in dealing with the health and social consequences of the harms caused by drugs is impeded rather than assisted by a muddled prohibitionist framework that criminalises some users of psychoactive drugs whilst very harmful psychoactive drugs including alcohol and tobacco remain legal. It [the report] calls for a rational, evidence-based approach to address the harms of all psychoactive substances led by the Department of Health; focusing resources on a health approach to drug harms based on the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs.”

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