Committee calls for royal commission on drug policy

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The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has called for a royal commission on UK drug policy to be set up in its Drugs: breaking the cycle report, the result of the all-party committee’s year-long enquiry (DDN, December 2011, page 4).

The committee wants to see a royal commission established immediately – as it was a ‘critical, now or never moment for serious reform’, according to committee chair Keith Vaz – and to report by 2015.

Responsibility for drug policy should be held jointly between the Home Office and Department of Health, says the report, which also recommends establishing a league table of health and wellbeing boards’ performance on local drugs provision. The document highlights residential rehabilitation and the use of buprenorphine as an alternative to methadone as ‘under-utilised’ treatment methods, and calls for improved drug education in schools and action to tackle the country’s prescription drug problem before it reaches similar proportions to that of the US.

Among the other recommendations are that ‘legal high’ retailers be held liable for any harms caused by untested substances they sell, mandatory drug tests on arrival and release from prison as well as ‘properly funded’ support for offenders on release – including immediate access to treatment – and that the new offence of drug driving included in the Crime and Courts Bill should include a maximum permissible level of concentration in a person’s blood ‘to have the equivalent effect on safety as the legal alcohol limit’.

‘After a year scrutinising UK drugs policy, it is clear to us that many aspects of it are simply not working and it needs to be fully reviewed,’ said Mr Vaz. ‘Implementation of the government’s policy of recovery is a major concern, in particular the quality and range of treatment provision available.’ 

The government said it would respond fully to the report in due course, but David Cameron quickly dismissed the call for a commission, stating that the government should continue with its priorities of emphasising treatment and keeping drugs out of prisons rather than ‘have some very, very long-term royal commission’. However a week later deputy prime minister Nick Clegg backed the call, telling the BBC that it was time to break the ‘conspiracy of silence’ in which serving politicians shy away from proper discussion of drug policy. 

DrugScope said the document was a ‘carefully considered and balanced report’ and welcomed the idea of a royal commission, provided it had ‘robust terms of reference’ and a ‘credible’ membership. 

‘The committee identifies that for some people residential rehabilitation is the most effective treatment, backed by proper aftercare in the community, and calls for an expansion in provision,’ said chief executive Martin Barnes. ‘We support this, but funding and commissioning decisions continue to be the main barriers to accessing residential rehabilitation, which in turn impacts on the services available.’

Addaction welcomed the report but stressed that disinvestment in specialist and young people’s services was a ‘trend that needs reversing, and quickly’, while Westminster Drugs Project urged the government to take the report’s recommendations on board and ‘take drug dependency out of a criminal framework and deal with it within a health and social care context’.  

Report at www.parliament.uk/homeaffairscom