Parliamentary Briefing: UK Drug Strategy 2017
“The first duty of the government is to keep citizens safe” Home Office website, 2017
But this strategy won’t protect young people and communities because it is the same failed old recipe of criminalisation and under-funding that has lead to record numbers of poor and vulnerable people dying for three years in a row. These drug deaths - each of which is an avoidable human tragedy, crime costs, squandering of resources, and human suffering should have demanded a radical rethink. But despite some nice sounding words and window dressing, little has changed.
According to the the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, taking a criminal justice-led approach to drugs creates a vast criminal market, syphons resources away from health, just shifts drug dealing and trafficking around, switches users between drugs, and stigmatises and drives people who use drugs from seeking help. In other words, prohibition is a discredited and deadly way to make drugs stronger and more dangerous, while funding organised crime.
To protect the young and vulnerable, we need to stop criminalising people who use drugs, and legally regulate them to steer users towards safer products, while fully funding drug services for all who need them. But the govt refuses to properly evaluate its strategy and compare it with the alternatives - because that would show what they are doing not only doesn’t work, but is perverse.
The Strategy: Overarching
Home Secretary says she wants this strategy to deliver a ‘drug-free society’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/news/amber-rudd/). Basing public policy on an unachievable fantasy will lead to more harm.
Home Office’s own research found no link between levels of drug use and harshness of enforcement - yet this strategy ignores this evidence by putting the failed enforcement approach at its centre (Home Office International Comparators Report 2014)
Drug-related deaths and ACMD recommendations
Around 1/3rd of all illegal drug related deaths in Europe happen in the UK (EMCDDA 2017). 10 families a day are bereaved as a result of illegal drugs here - more than on roads (ONS 2016) but the strategy takes no responsibility for this failure
Anne Marie Cockburn, of the Anyone’s Child project, whose daughter died from an accidental ecstasy overdose said; “I invite the Prime Minister to come and stand by my daughter’s grave, and tell me her approach to drugs is working.”
These deaths are NOT an inevitable result of an aging drug using population as the govt claims, they result from policy choices.
Average age of death is ~40, yet the strategy defines an aging user as over 45 - so many younger users are also dying
Portugal and Switzerland have aging drug users - but they are not dying of overdoses. At 60 deaths per million UK death rate is 10 times that of Portugal (5.8) where deaths fell dramatically across all ages after it decriminalised possession of drugs in 2001, encouraging people to seek help, and putting money saved into treatment (EMCDDA 2017).
In Switzerland aging drug users die primarily from physical illnesses like heart, liver and lung diseases (like the general pop.) not overdose because they have access to safer drug consumption rooms (DCR) and heroin prescribing clinics (HAT). (Dr. Thilo Beck 2016)
No one has died from an overdose, anywhere in the world, ever, in a supervised drug consumption room (EMCDDA 2017). The 1573 people who died from a heroin overdose in the UK in 2015 (ONS 2016) would not have done so if they had taken drugs in a DCR, or heroin prescribing clinic.
NHS Glasgow says their proposed DCR will save lives and millions of pounds in reduced costs from HIV infections and emergency callouts. But the UK govt wants to block it (NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde 2017)
Strategy makes no mention of heroin prescribing clinics, but said in its crime reduction strategy they should be introduced. Trials showed huge reductions in acquisitive crime and small time dealing to fund use. But govt withdrew funding in April 2016 from the ones that did exist (RIOTT Trials)
The strategy emphasises the importance of listening to the ACMD. The ACMD recommends safer drug consumption rooms, funding heroin prescribing clinics and effectively decriminalising possession of drugs for personal use to save lives and money. The government is doing none of these things. (ACMD Reducing opioid-related deaths in the UK 2016)
Despite claimed commitments to evidence based policy the government has casually dismissed decriminalisation (ending criminal penalties for possession/use) despite recommendations (public and private) from their own expert advisors ACMD
The govt argument that decriminalisation is simplistic and not supported by evidence runs contrary to clear calls from the WHO, Royal Society for Public Health, British Medical Journal and the Lancet. Criminalisation is an ineffective and harmful response to a public health challenge
The government’s reasoning is inconsistent as well as wrong given possession of the substances covered by the PSA, and of the image enhancing drugs in the strategy are rightly not a criminal offence
NPS - ‘Formerly legal highs’
The strategy wants to have its cake and eat it. It both claims that the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) which was supposed to eliminate NPS is a huge success, while also saying the new strategy will focus on eliminating the many problems from these products.
Many towns and cities are seeing their poorest, most vulnerable citizens harmed by NPS that are still widely available, stronger, and more dangerous than before the ban - just as the govt was warned would be the case by many experts
Drug czars come and go, this looks like a desperate attempt to pretend something is being done when the reality is this drug strategy is more of the same.
Good drug education can be useful, but evidence shows it has only marginal impacts on use levels. So education that includes safer using advice is more important to save lives
Ring-fencing treatment budgets would be welcome, but will not deal with local authorities and health providers not having enough resources. The government needs to invest more in prevention, treatment, harm reduction and measures like heroin prescribing clinics and safer drug consumption rooms not just to save lives, but because they save money in the longer term
It is revealing there are no targets for reducing harm and availability (which aren’t even going to be measured).