Time for a ‘fresh approach’ to policy, says UKDPC

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There should be a wholesale review of both the Misuse of Drugs Act and the drugs classification system, according to a report from the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC).

The culmination of a six-year study, A fresh approach to drugs also calls for reduced sanctions for drug possession, more consistency in controls over all psychoactive substances, including alcohol and tobacco, and a review of penalties for all drug offences, although it recommends that the production and supply of most drugs should remain illegal.  

Much of the spending on tackling illicit drug use, which UKDPC estimates at around £3bn per year, is not based on evidence, it says, with some policies – including seizures by police and border agencies – having ‘little or no’ impact. ‘With some 42,000 people in England and Wales sentenced annually for drug possession offences and about 160,000 given cannabis warnings, this amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution and courts,’ the report says. ‘On top of this comes the cost to the individual in terms of damage to employment prospects’, with people also deterred from seeking help because they are ‘doing something illegal’.

Existing drug policies have struggled to limit the damage caused by drug use, and are unable to keep pace with the ever-developing range of new substances, it says. With fewer resources available, a ‘radical rethink’ of responses is called for, says the report, which analyses how policies and interventions could be improved to create a ‘fresh approach’, with evidence taking priority and an ‘environment that works to reduce dependence’ and safeguard communities.

The report makes a range of other recommendations, including more action to tackle stigma and support families, as well as transferring responsibility for drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and creating a cross-party political forum to develop dialogue about future policy direction. All drug policies should undergo ‘rigorous and continual scrutiny’ to make sure they are providing value for money, it adds, with a new independent body established to coordinate research.

DrugScope said it supported a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, including the use of civil rather than criminal sanctions for personal possession of some drugs, and – although other recommendations were more challenging – serious public debate was welcome. ‘The media and our politicians have an important role to play in shaping this debate, which should not be reduced to a black and white adversarial argument,’ said chief executive Martin Barnes. ‘Progress in this highly emotive and politicised arena will occur when policymakers and politicians can more openly express their views without fear of opprobrium.’

Meanwhile, a report from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) says that international policy drug policy needs radical reform to ‘remove outmoded, unscientific thinking’. Empirical data showing that the current system has failed is ‘overwhelming’, says The global drug wars, with the human cost of many international policies – which governments pursue through a mix of ‘bureaucratic and ideological inertia’ – rendering them ‘unjustifiable’.  

Available at www.ukdpc.org.uk and www2.lse.ac.uk