UK drug laws need radical change

UK drug laws need radical change, says Lib Dem Home Office minister as Government publishes a major report on drugs policies around the world.

A ground-breaking Government study published today has found that the severity of criminal sanctions against drug users makes no difference to rates of drug use.

The Home Office’s ‘Drugs: International Comparators’ study looked at different approaches to drugs policy and treatment in a number of countries, including some that have harsh criminal sanctions for users and some that have effectively decriminalised possession of drugs, allowed cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal purposes and in some cases prescribed heroin to addicts who fail to move on to methadone. 

Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister Norman Baker welcomed the report and said it shows clearly that the Government needs to follow the evidence and be brave enough to change drugs policy in the UK.

The report does not advocate legalisation of drugs like cannabis but did find that treating possession of drugs as a health matter rather a criminal one does reduce drug-related deaths and HIV/AIDS infection rates and does not lead to a long-term increase in drug use.  

The study:

  • Found no evidence that drug use in a country was affected by how “tough” or “soft” the government’s response is, showing that the severity of criminal penalties has little effect on drug use.
  • Found positive health outcomes in Portugal, where possession of drugs is treated as a health matter rather a criminal one. This included considering the Portuguese model of ‘dissuasion commissions’ – lay panels that can divert users into health programmes rather than the criminal justice system
  • Found no evidence of lasting increased drug use in Portugal since decriminalisation 
  • Found evidence of worse health outcomes in Czech Republic after drug possession was criminalised and no evidence of reduced drug use
  • Says the Government will monitor results in Uruguay and some US states that have recently legalised possession of cannabis and allowed it to be sold over the counter
  • Found strong evidence that prescribing heroin to addicts who repeatedly fail to move onto methadone can reduce harm, crime and improve outcomes
  • Demonstrates that the prescription of Naloxone (an anti-overdose drug) for people leaving prison would dramatically reduce the number of drug-related deaths in the UK

The study was commissioned by the Inter-Ministerial Group on Drugs and overseen by Liberal Democrat ministers Jeremy Browne and Norman Baker. 

It looked at countries with a range of drug-related policies. Home Office ministers and officials undertook visits to, and discussions with: Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Uruguay.

The Liberal Democrats advocate scrapping prison sentences for people whose only crime is possession of drugs, instead directing them to get health treatment.

We also want to move the responsibility for the Government’s drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health.

We want to crack down on the criminal gangs that supply illegal drugs but help users and those who suffer from drug addiction to get the education and treatment they need.

Norman Baker said: “The Liberal Democrats believe drugs policy should be based on evidence, not dogma or the desire to sound tough. If you are anti-drugs you should be pro-reform.

“For too long successive governments have been unwilling to look at the evidence. This comprehensive report shows that other ways of tackling drug addiction and supply can save lives and cut crime.

“It’s time for a radical change in British drugs policy. The fact is we should spend more time and effort cracking down on the Mr Bigs' and criminal gangs who traffic drugs than users and addicts who should be helped to recover, not put behind bars.”

A separate study published by the Home Office today also calls for a blanket ban on supply of so-called legal highs. This reflects the same approach taken by the Liberal Democrats to drugs policy.

We want to clamp down on those who supply drugs, while supporting users into appropriate treatment to help them quit and recover.

Norman Baker added: “This report examines the challenging complexity of tackling new psychoactive substances and sets out an ambitious package of actions to strengthen our response to this emerging health threat to the UK. We have made it clear that the sale of risky untested highs is not acceptable, and we will crack down on the sale of these unregulated and potentially fatal drugs.

We need to protect the public from the danger of these substances, but we also have made it clear that we will not criminalise possession for personal use.”

Key quotes from the report:

P47 “we did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.”

P51 “Looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”

P47 “It is clear that there has not been a lasting and significant increase in drug use in Portugal since 2001.”

P48 “One of the clearest changes in Portugal since 2001 has been a considerable improvement in the indicators of health outcomes for drug users.”

P49 “Conversely, the evaluation of the criminalisation of drug possession in the Czech Republic observed that adverse health outcomes for users increased following criminalisation.”

P51 “It is not clear that decriminalisation has an impact on levels of drug use. Following decriminalisation in Portugal there has not been a lasting increase in adult drug use.”

P51 “There is evidence from Portugal of improved health prospects for users, though these cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone.”

P51 “There are indications that decriminalisation can reduce the burden on criminal justice systems. Since decriminalisation, Portugal has reduced the proportion of drug related offenders in its prison population.” 

On supply-side legalisation and regulation of cannabis (as seen in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington):

P6 “It is too early to know how these experiments will play out, but we will monitor the impacts of these new policies in the coming years.”

On Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT)

P21 “The UK population of heroin users includes some who are entrenched in addiction, and have not succeeded in achieving progress towards recovery through the standard forms of treatment. This makes HAT worth considering.”

On prescription of Naloxone:

P33 “The risk of fatal overdose among those leaving custody can be reduced through the more widespread provision of the opioid antagonist, naloxone, which reverses the respiratory depression caused by opioids like heroin.”

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