Calls for drugs to be decriminalised from leading public health organisations


The "war on drugs" has failed in terms of public health and drug use should be decriminalised, two leading organisations have said.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) said the personal possession and use of all illegal drugs should no longer be considered a criminal offence.

The bodies still support criminal charges for people who deal drugs - but they said users should instead be referred for treatment and help.

The recommendation is made in a new UK-wide report - Taking a New Line on Drugs - which has the backing of several charities and law enforcement officials.

It's accompanied by a poll of more than 2,000 adults. This found 56% agreed drug users should be referred for treatment instead of facing charges.

The report calls for evidence-based drugs education for young people in schools as part of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.

It also said the responsibility for a drugs strategy should be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health.

Department of health
The report says the Department of Health should be responsible for a drugs strategy (Johnny Green/PA)

Criminalising users leads to long-term harm such as greater exposure to drugs in prison, it argued. Furthermore, family relationships were severely harmed and people faced exclusion from education and employment.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH, said: "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.

"On many levels, in terms of the public's health, the 'war on drugs' has failed. 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."

cannabis plant
The police and crime commissioner for Durham Constabulary has been encouraging other forces to not prosecute cannabis users (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Professor John Middleton, president of the FPH, said: "Criminalisation and incarceration for minor, non-violent offences worsen problems linked to illicit drug use, such as social inequality, violence and infection. Possession and use should be decriminalised and health approaches prioritised."

Ron Hogg, police and crime commissioner for Durham Constabulary, who recently wrote to counterparts across the country to encourage them to follow his force's approach of not prosecuting cannabis users, said: "I believe that vulnerable people should be supported to change their lifestyles and break their habits rather than face criminal prosecution, at great expense to themselves and to society.

"The scant resources of the police and the courts are better used tackling the causes of the greatest harm - like the organised crime gangs that keep drugs on our streets and cause misery to thousands of people - rather than giving priority to arresting low-level users."

And people, from politicians to general Tweeters, have been showing their support for the recommendation of decriminalising all drugs.

But a Home Office spokesman said: "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 drugs trade."

He also said there had been a drop in drug misuse over the last decade and more people were recovering from dependency now than in 2009/10.