Establish royal commission on drug policy, says select committee

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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 to ‘consider the best ways of tackling drugs policy in an increasingly globalised world’ and to report by 2015, as ‘we cannot afford to kick this issue into the long grass’, according to committee chair Keith Vaz. 

Responsibility for drug policy should be held jointly between the Home Office and Department of Health, says the report, which also recommends the government considers establishing a league table of health and wellbeing boards’ performance on local drugs provision, as ‘treatment must also be supplemented by housing, training and employment support if required’ to meet the end goal of re-integration into society. 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, and for the government to bring forward legislation to extend the ‘personal, criminal liability’ of senior bank staff whose organisations are found to have been involved in laundering drug money. It also wants to see 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’.

Although the report acknowledges that England and Wales now have ‘almost the lowest recorded level of drug use in the adult populations since measurement began in 1996’, it was a ‘critical, now or never moment for serious reform’ said Vaz, to avoid future generations being ‘crippled by the social and financial burden’ of addiction. 

‘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,’ he said. ‘Implementation of the government’s policy of recovery is a major concern, in particular the quality and range of treatment provision available. A league table of treatment centre performance should be established, so patients don’t waste time and money on care that is not up to scratch. It is unacceptable that treatments which we know work, such as residential rehabilitation and buprenorphine, are not accessible to more addicts.’ 

The government said it would respond fully to the report in due course, but David Cameron has already commented 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’.

DrugScope called the document 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