Ministers must consider decriminalising the possession of drugs, MPs have said in a new report that calls for “radical change” to the UK’s approach.
The Health and Social Care Committee said the rate of drug-related deaths in the UK had risen to the scale of a public health emergency, and urged that any policy should focus on healthcare, not prosecution, with drug possession for personal use treated as a civil matter and not a crime.
Britain has some of the highest drug death rates in Europe. In 2018, 4,359 deaths were directly attributed to substance misuse in England and Wales – a 16 per cent increase in a year – while Scotland had a higher rate of drug-related deaths than any other EU country last year, after a 27 per cent increase brought the total to its highest level since records began 23 years ago.
The cross-party MPs said that to curb this crisis, ministers must consider moving from the current criminal justice approach to a health approach, with responsibility for drugs policy moving from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.
They urged the government to carry out a consultation on decriminalisation, which they said would “save money” from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in prevention and treatment, which would in turn “save lives”.
The report also urged ministers to look at the system in Portugal, where drug possession was decriminalised in 2001, and where there has subsequently been a dramatic fall in drug deaths.
MPs said there would have to be sufficient funding for alternative approaches, such as a pilot of supervised facilities where users can take drugs in safer conditions.
“Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system and allows for more investment in prevention and treatment,” their report said.
Committee chair 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 [cities such as] Frankfurt.”
Dr James Nicholls, chief executive at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, welcomed the demands for the government take a public health approach, saying ministers must act on the report “as a matter of life or death”.
He added: “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.”
Cara Lavan, of the Anyone’s Child campaign group, echoed the calls for regulation of the supply of drugs, saying: “We welcome the committees call for the decriminalisation of the drug trade but would urge them to go further.
“The government must control and regulate the trade if they want to remove organised criminals from the market. Only then will we stop our family, friends and loved ones from dying.”
A government spokesperson said: “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.
“The government has no plans to decriminalise drug possession. 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.”