Decriminalise drug possession to stop rising deaths, say MPs

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Some drug offences should be decriminalised in an attempt to stem the rising number of related deaths, an influential cross-party group of MPs has said in a call for radical change to the UK’s drugs policy.

The approach to drugs was “clearly failing” and policies should focus on healthcare, not prosecution, a report by the health and social care committee found.

The committee, which is chaired by the Liberal Democrat Sarah Wollaston and includes the minister for military personnel and veterans, Johnny Mercer, said drug possession for personal use should be a civil rather than a criminal matter.

A consultation on decriminalisation should be launched and significant investment directed into treatment services as a matter of urgency, the report said.

Related: Nothing has changed since I was sacked. Drugs policy still doesn’t work | David Nutt

The recommendations were broadly backed by campaigners and medical experts, but the government moved swiftly to say it had no plans to decriminalise drug possession.

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 look at the system used in Portugal, where possession of all drugs had been decriminalised, the MPs said, adding such a move would save money from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in treatment.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning were recorded in England and Wales in 2018, the highest since records began in 1993. Scotland’s drug-related death toll also hit a record high of 1,187, according to data released in July, putting the country on a par with the US in per capita terms.

Decriminalisation could save lives, the committee said, as it called for sufficient funding for alternative approaches, such as a pilot of drug consumption rooms – supervised healthcare facilities where users can take drugs in safer conditions.

There should be needle and syringe exchanges and take-home naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids, the MPs said.

Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drug charity Release, said: “The committee is absolutely right to conclude that current UK drug policy is failing, with record levels of drug-related deaths – the highest for the seventh year in a row with 11 people dying every day. The recommendations of this report must be urgently implemented to reduce these avoidable deaths.

“We welcome the support for increased funding for drug treatment and support for drug consumption rooms.

“The call for the government to consult on decriminalisation is a positive move. The evidence from other countries that have ended criminal sanctions for possession offences shows that, when coupled with harm reduction and treatment, it can significantly reduce drug-related deaths.”

Prof David Nutt, the government’s former chief drug misuse adviser who was sacked a decade ago for claiming ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, said: “This is not the first time parliamentary committees have recommended major changes to the drug and alcohol laws. Let’s hope that this one is the last, and that the government take heed of this report.”

Nutt, now the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, added: “For this to happen the government must accept the vast body of evidence that they have ignored for decades and make the recommended changes. It is now time to take decision-making on drugs out of petty party politics and into health.”

James Nicholls, the chief executive of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “The UK, particularly Scotland, is gripped by a drug-related death crisis. The government must act on this report as a matter of life or death.

“We also support the call for decriminalisation of people in possession of drugs. Moving drugs to the Department of Health and establishing harm reduction at the heart of UK drug policy is crucial if we are to save lives.

“However, if we are to seriously get drugs under control we must legalise and regulate their supply as well as decriminalising people who use them.”

A government spokesperson said it had no plans for decriminalisation. “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.”