Health organisations in call to take drug use out of criminal justice system

Baroness Molly Meacher

Two leading UK public health organisations have called for the personal possession and use of all illegal drugs to be decriminalised.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) have called for a package of measures to move UK drugs strategy away from a “predominantly criminal justice approach” towards one based on public health and harm reduction.

Taking a New Line on Drugs, a new RSPH report endorsed by FPH, cites evidence showing that drug-related harm and drug-related death has risen over recent years.

The report argues that criminalisation itself leads directly to additional long-term health and wellbeing harm, including greater exposure to drugs in prison, severing of family relationships, and barriers to education and employment.

Simultaneously, the report argues, criminalisation fails to address underlying substance misuse issues and discourages those with an addiction from coming forward for treatment.

The new model proposed by both organisations is based on that in Portugal, where drug possession is still prohibited but users are referred to treatment and support programmes instead of being charged with a criminal offence.

Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of RSPH, said 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”.

Professor John Middleton, president of FPH, said the “imbalance between criminal justice and health approaches to illicit drugs is counterproductive”.

He added: “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.”

Baroness Molly Meacher, speaking on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, added her support.

She said: “The report of the Royal Society for Public Health is very much welcomed.

“It argues that the valuable work of health professionals in dealing with the health and social consequences of the harms caused by drugs is impeded rather than assisted by a muddled prohibitionist framework that criminalises some users of psychoactive drugs whilst very harmful psychoactive drugs including alcohol and tobacco remain legal.

“It calls for a rational, evidence-based approach to address the harms of all psychoactive substances led by the Department of Health; focussing resources on a health approach to drug harms based on the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs.

“The resources released should be used to enhance the role of the wider public health workforce to assist in the harm reduction and recovery of problematic drug users and the support to communities damaged by the illicit drug trade.”