Should we decriminalise drugs?

The Royal Society for Public Health recently called for drugs to be decriminalised but what were their reasons?
11 August 2016

Interview with 

Ed Morrow, The Royal Society for Public Health


Around the world there are some very different approaches aiming to reduce drugPolice Drugs Search harm, from legalisation, to the death penalty. So where does the science stand? The UK's Royal Society for Public Health, or RSPH,  recently released a report calling for a change in how the war on drugs is fought. Georgia Mills spoke to Ed Morrow, campaigns officer at the RSPH.

Ed - The 'taking a new line on drugs' report is really the first time that a major public health organisation in this country has come out with a strong line on how drugs policy in this country needs to undergo a major shift. Previously we have been too focused on the criminal justice approach, which is just not working in terms of reducing harms from drugs.

We've seen a situation over the past decade where yes, although use of some of the less harmful drugs, such as cannabis, has continued to go down slightly, actually, use of some of the most harmful substances, things like heroin, has risen slightly and, more importantly, the harm associated with those drugs. Particularly the number of deaths associated with them has risen significantly, so we are not tackling that harm coming from drugs. So what we've set out in this report is a new public health based approach which is focused on reducing the harm from drugs

Georgia - How would you go about doing this?

Ed - So, one of the major pillars which underlies it is the idea of decriminalising possession and use of drugs. That is not the same as full legalisation, but we've been seeing for a long time that criminalising people who have a drug misuse problem does not does not help them get better. It puts a lot more costs onto society in the long run and it also discourages people who have a drug misuse problem from coming forward for the treatment they need because they are scared of being prosecuted. So that's one of the first major steps we need to look at, and we also want to see much better, more universal drug education for young people.

Georgia - Where does the scientific evidence for these arguments lie?

Ed - Well, we've been looking a lot at international examples of different countries that have tried similar approaches to what we are suggesting. One of the biggest examples we've been looking at is Portugal. Now Portugal, in 2001, decriminalised all possession and use of drugs in a similar way to what we would like to see. Now over that period they have seen a great increase in their health outcomes related to drugs. The number of deaths related to drugs misuse has plummeted, I think from round about 80 a year to round about 10 a year. Infection rates for various infections related to drug use, things like HIV and Hep C, those have also fallen through the floor. And, at the same time, drug use has not risen in the way that some people have feared and they still have a level of drug use which is well below the European average and is below what we have in this country.

Georgia - Alcohol and tobacco - two of the most commonly used drugs in this country, and they're the two legal ones. Could this not be a warning that if we do move towards this decriminalisation it might normalise the use of these drugs, maybe not immediately, but eventually lead to greater uptake?

Ed - If we again go backs to the evidence - countries that have tried this approach - the example in Portugal is a 15 year scheme now where they've had this approach and it has not seen a normalisation, it has not seen an uptake in levels of use of other drugs. So we think that what we've seen so far from other countries would disprove that fear.

Georgia - And what about evidence from UK soil, because I know that drug use is very different from county to county, let alone between countries?

Ed - Well, it is interesting to look at the different ways in which police forces in this country are dealing with various types of drug use. So some police forces in certain parts of the country , Durham are one major example, have stopped actively pursuing and prosecuting people for possession and small scale supply of cannabis and we have not seen the effect of usage going up in those areas. But it's also interesting to look at the situation with what happened with cannabis being upgraded to a Class B drug in this country, which did not lead to a fall in use. So  it very much seems, even with this country, that the level of enforcement, the level of penalties, does not have a direct link with the level of use.

The resistance to making this change is not a scientific one, it's a political one because the reality we live in, at the moment, is that drugs policy, both in this country and across the world is driven by politics rather than the science and that is a situation we need to change.

Georgia - Recently legal highs have just been banned in this country. Could you explain to me how this has been done and whether you think this is a good move?

Ed - Legal highs are, or were, substances which are designed to mimic the effects of traditional legal drugs but with a slightly different chemical composition so that they would avoid the existing legislation and classification that would apply. The new Psychoactive Substances Act which has come in to ban what were formerly known as legal highs is an interesting situation. We think it's going to be quite problematic in terms of enforcement because it seeks to ban any new substance which has a psychoactive effect.  And, of course, there are lots of perfectly innocuous substances which do have such an effect and, obviously, they've had to put in exceptions - alcohol and tobacco and many sorts of medicinal products as well.

Georgia - I heard the original drafting accidently banned things like paint, and perfume, and petrol?

Ed - Yes, so it's that kind of thing. They've got themselves in a bit of a mess over this, but they've brought it in now. But the interesting thing as well for us on this is that what it has done is to ban production and sale of these substances and it has not criminalised possession and use. So we think, even though this legislation is a bit of a mess in some ways, there is this inherent recognition from the government that criminalising people for drug use doesn't work. We'd like to see that situation reflected with more traditional, if you like, illegal drugs.

Connie - We asked the government for a response for the Royal Society for Public Health's report and they gave us this statement:

"This government has no intention of decriminalising drugs. The decriminalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities. The UK's approach on drugs remains clear; we must prevent drug use in our communities and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery. At the same time we have to stop the supply of illegal drugs and tackle the organised crime behind the drug trade. There has been a reduction of drug use amongst adults and young people compared with a decade ago and more people are recovering from dependency now than in 2009 and 2010."


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