Public health bodies call for decriminalisation of drugs

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RSPHA report from the UK’s two major public health organisations has called for the personal possession of all illegal drugs to be decriminalised.

Published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) with the support of the Faculty of Public Health (FPH), Taking a new line on drugs also wants to see lead responsibility for the nation’s drug strategy transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health, aligning it more closely with the strategies for alcohol and tobacco.

The report – which was the front page story on the Times – advocates a Portuguese-style model where possession remains prohibited but users are referred to treatment programmes rather than prosecuted – moving from a ‘predominantly criminal justice approach towards one based on public health and harm reduction’, it says. The organisations are also calling for universal provision of ‘evidence-based’ drugs education through statutory PHSE education in schools, as well as the use of evidence-based ‘drug harm profiles’ to inform enforcement priorities and public health messages.

The current legal framework around drugs is confusing and sends ‘misleading signals’ to the public, says the document, nor does it correlate with evidence-based assessment of relative harms – a situation is that is ‘likely to get worse’ with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act (DDN, June, page 4). Criminalisation also fails to address the underlying issues associated with drug use, it adds, while the harms associated with it fall disproportionately on disadvantaged groups and so help to exacerbate health inequalities.

‘For too long, UK and global drugs strategies have pursued reductions in drug use as an end in itself, failing to recognise that harsh criminal sanctions have pushed vulnerable people in need of treatment to the margins of society, driving up harm to health and wellbeing even as overall use falls,’ said RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer. ‘The time has come for a new approach, where we recognise that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and that those who misuse drugs are in need of treatment and support – not criminals in need of punishment.’