The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has called for the decriminalisation of the use and possession of all illegal drugs.
In a report, Taking a new line on drugs, backed by the Faculty of Public Health (FPH), the RSPH argued for the UK drugs strategy to move away from a criminal justice approach towards one based on public health and harm reduction.
The report includes a representative poll of more than 2,000 UK adults, which found that 56% agree drug users in their area should be referred to treatment, rather than charged as criminals with just 23% disagreeing.
The report, which is published ahead of the Government’s expected drugs strategy, argues a new approach is needed since, although overall drug use has fallen in recent years, drug-related harm and death has continued to rise.
Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of RSPH, said: “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.”
The report also recommends evidence-based drugs education to young people through Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education in schools.
In addition, the report suggests moving lead responsibility for drugs strategy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and aligning it with alcohol and tobacco strategies.
Professor John Middleton, president of FPH, added: “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.”
The report argues that criminalisation leads to long-term health and wellbeing harm, including greater exposure to drugs in prison, severing family ties and education and employment barriers.
This falls disproportionately on disadvantaged ethnic and socio-economic groups, who are far more likely to be charged for drug possession despite similar levels of use, argues the report.
RSPH and FPH advocate a Portuguese-style model in the report whereby, although drug possession is still prohibited, users are referred to treatment and support programmes, rather than charged with a criminal offence.
International evidence suggests this could lead to reductions in many forms of drug-related harm, without promoting increases in problematic use.
However, producers and suppliers would still be prosecuted under the proposed system.