A group of MPs believe that the government should investigate decriminalising the possession of all illegal drugs in a bid to prevent the rising number of drug-related deaths. The level of such deaths in the UK is a public health emergency, say the Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC). Last year, there were 2670 deaths directly attributed to drug misuse in England: a 16% increase from 2017. However, if other causes of premature death among people who used drugs were included, the number of deaths could be roughly double this, said the HSCC.
MPs on the committee said they were so concerned they had rushed their Drugs policy report out early. They recommend a radical change in approach to UK drugs policy, moving from the current criminal justice approach to a health approach. This would entail responsibility for drugs policy moving from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.
They also urged the government to urgently consult on making the possession of drugs for personal use a civil rather than criminal matter, as is the case in Portugal where drug death rates have fallen dramatically. A health-focused approach would benefit those who are using drugs as well as reducing harm to their wider communities. It would also save money from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in prevention and treatment, they say.
“Evidence heard throughout this inquiry leads the committee to conclude that UK drugs policy is clearly failing”, the report said.
“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 report calls for a reverse to recent cuts to drug treatment services, as well as sufficient funding for alternative approaches, such as drug consumption rooms.
Committee chairman, and Lib Dem MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston said: “Recommendations put forward in this report propose changes to drugs policy that are desperately needed to prevent thousands of deaths”.
The government said it had no plans to decriminalise drug possession, and said such a scheme would not be effective without investing in harm reduction, support and treatment services for addiction. The Home Office has commissioned a major independent review to examine these issues.