War on drugs failing: decriminalise possession says UK committee

War on drugs failing: decriminalise possession says UK committee

The Health Committee has said the UK’s war on drugs is failing as drug related deaths are now a public emergency.

In a call for radical change to UK drugs policy the Health Committee of MP’s has said the UK war on drugs is failing and has recommended decriminalising drug possession for personal use.

This year the UK saw its highest ever levels of drug related deaths – making the UK the country with the highest number in Europe, three times higher than the average. Deaths in England rose to 2,670 in 2018; an increase of 16% since 2017. The majority of these deaths were opiate related.

The committee also recommends increasing the funding available as a matter of urgency in order to ensure that heroin assisted treatment, naloxone, and needle and syringe programmes are available.

UK war on drugs failing

The report acknowledges the UK’s failing war on drugs – noting that the Modern Crime Prevention Strategy states that offenders who regularly use heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine commit an estimated 45% of acquisitive crime and that ‘the cartels and dealers leave a worldwide trail of misery, death and corruption.’

Vulnerable and young people are exploited as part of the illegal drugs trade and the UK has seen a ‘County Lines’ crisis – whereby young people and vulnerable adults are exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and in some instances, will be trafficked to areas a long way from home as part of a network’s drug dealing business.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently lifted the lid on the true scale of the impact of County Lines activity with new figures revealing there are more than 4,000 young people involved in lines operating out of London and across the country.

London is the highest exporting area for so-called County Lines –with 15% of all activity originating from the capital and driving gang-related violence and the criminal exploitation of vulnerable young people.

Networks use several methods to groom young people and vulnerable adults, often through the offer of money or drugs, and are approached in schools, Pupil Referral Units, youth clubs and food outlets, and promised a fake lifestyle that promises benefitting financially from County Lines exploitation.

Decriminalising drug possession

Currently it is illegal to be in possession of any amount of drugs for personal use, and the new recommendations suggest that possession of drugs for personal use should be changed from a criminal to a civil matter. The call is a bid to help reduce the amount of drug related deaths and drug related crime.

The report recommends that the Government should examine the Portuguese system, where decriminalisation was implemented as part of a comprehensive approach to drugs, noting that: ‘Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system and allows for more investment in prevention and treatment.’

The report states: ‘The evidence we have heard leads us to conclude that UK drugs policy is failing.

‘We recommend a radical change in UK drugs policy from a criminal justice to a health approach. A health focused and harm reduction approach would not only benefit those who are using drugs but reduce harm to and the costs for their wider communities. Responsibility for drugs policy should move from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.

‘We recommend that the Government should consult on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use from a criminal offence to a civil matter. The Government should examine the Portuguese system, where decriminalisation was implemented as one part of a comprehensive approach to drugs, including improving treatment services, introducing harm reduction interventions, and better education, prevention and social support.’

Holistic approach to care

Many people who are dependent are living with chronic conditions and have related underlying mental health problems, however, they are not receiving the support they need. As the current guidelines for treating drug dependent individuals are not delivering, the committee wants the government to look at taking a more holistic approach.

According to the report drug treatment services have faced funding cuts of 27% over the past three years, and notes that dependency on prescription medicines is an emerging and worrying issue which requires greater attention from government.

The report states: ‘Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system that is more effectively invested in prevention and treatment. Decriminalisation will not be effective without investing in holistic harm reduction, support and treatment services for drug addiction. Doing so would save lives and provide better protection for communities.’

The report also recommends that Drug Consumption Rooms (DCRs) should be introduced on a pilot basis in areas of high need, accompanied by robust evaluation of their outcomes.

Government priorities

The report has recommended a number of priorities the government should act on:

  • Develop a comprehensive response to drugs, to invest in existing drug treatment services, and extend and develop harm reduction initiatives
  • To fund a comprehensive package of education, prevention and support measures focused both on prevention of drug use amongst young people
  • A comprehensive response should also include a focus on improving the life chances of people who are recovering from drug use
  • To reframe drug use as a health rather than a criminal justice issue
  • Decriminalisation must only be introduced as one part of a full, comprehensive approach to drugs
  • Any reforms should also be supported by rigorous evaluation which gathers longitudinal data on defined outcome measures

The opioid crisis

Opioids have caused devastation across America where the use of opioids has been declared a national health crisis. Over the last year there has been growing concerns that the UK is heading in the same direction. The increasing number of people over 40 seeking treatment is raising fears that ageing opiate users with complex needs will come to dominate demand on substance misuse services in future.

In its advice to the Home Secretary earlier this year, the ACMD raised concerns that this group is being failed in their recovery from substance misuse, as services are not catering for their additional needs.

Chair of the ACMD, Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, said: “This ageing cohort is likely to dominate future demand on substance misuse facilities which is why more needs to be done now to help these people access services that meet their needs.

“Government, commissioners and services need to urgently re-assess how to best manage the complex needs of this ageing group.

“The ACMD commissioned the report to investigate the changing age profiles of those seeking treatment for drug use and explain why current services are not meeting their needs.”

Another review has linked growing opioid use to poverty, it notes:

  • Prescribing rates and duration of prescription are higher in some of the most deprived areas of England
  • A similar pattern is also seen for the number of medicines co-prescribed (for example, at least two of the drugs)
  • For opioids and gabapentinoids, the prescribing rate in the most deprived quintile was 1.6 times the rate in the least deprived quintile
  • The co-prescribing rate in the most deprived quintile was 1.4 times higher than in the least deprived quintile (30% compared to 21%)
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