Call for decriminalisation of drugs to curb rise in deaths

Drugs and drug-taking equipment Credit: Paul Faith/PA

MPs have called for some drug offences to be decriminalised, in a bid to prevent the rising number of related deaths.

A report by the Health and Social Care Committee found the country’s position on drugs was “clearly failing” and called for a “radical new approach”.

It says drug possession for personal use should be a civil matter not a crime, and any policy should focus on healthcare, not prosecution.

It urged the Government to carry out a consultation on decriminalisation and to look at the system in Portugal where this was introduced, saying such a move would “save money” from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in prevention and treatment.

The move could “save lives”, the report claimed, as it called for “sufficient funding” for alternative approaches, like a pilot of drug consumption rooms – supervised healthcare facilities where users can take drugs in safer conditions.

It said there should be needle and syringe exchanges and give addicts the ability to “take home” naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids.

There were 2,670 deaths directly attributed to drug misuse in England last year, an increase of 16% since 2017, the findings said, adding: “If other causes of premature death amongst people who use drugs were included, it is likely that this figure would approximately double.”

The report said: “Evidence heard throughout this inquiry leads the committee to conclude that UK drugs policy is clearly failing.

“The United Kingdom has some of the highest drug death rates in Europe, particularly in Scotland.

“This report shows how the rate of drug-related deaths has risen to the scale of a public health emergency.

“The Portuguese system included improving treatment services, introducing harm reduction interventions, and better education, prevention and social support.

A new report has called for a change in approach to the UK's drug policy. Credit: PA

“Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system and allows for more investment 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.”

It also said the responsibility of drugs policy should be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care, adding: “Following budget cuts of nearly 30% over the past three years, the Government must now direct significant investment into drug treatment services as a matter of urgency.”

Committee chairman Dr Sarah Wollaston said decriminalisation alone “would not be sufficient” and there needed to be a “radical upgrade in treatment and holistic care for those who are dependent on drugs, and this should begin without delay.”

She added: “Every drug death should be regarded as preventable and yet across the UK, the number of drugs-related deaths continues to rise to the scale of a public health emergency.

“Recommendations put forward in this report propose changes to drugs policy that are desperately needed to prevent thousands of deaths.

“Avoidable drug deaths are increasing year on year across the UK, but there has been a failure to act on the evidence.

“The Government should learn lessons from the international experience, including countries like Portugal and Frankfurt.”

The report calls for radical change in the way drugs are dealt with in the UK. Credit: PA

Dr Emily Finch, vice chairman of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called on the Government to “urgently invest significant sums of money into services” for treatment.

She added: “The increasing number of people needlessly dying from drug addiction shows the Government’s approach to treating addictions is failing.

“We emphatically support the report’s calls for urgent investment in drug treatment services and a return to harm reduction.”

But the Government said it “has no plans to decriminalise drug possession”.

A spokesman added: “The decriminalisation of drug possession in the UK would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities.

“We are committed to reducing the use of drugs and the harms they cause, and the Home Office has commissioned a major independent review to examine these issues.

“We must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery, and tackle the supply of illegal drugs.”