Reform law and expand treatment options to tackle cost of drugs on society – Home Affairs Committee finds
31 August 2023
Drug laws are outdated and in need of reform, the Home Affairs Committee has found. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and Misuse of Drugs regulations need to be updated to support greater use of public health based drug interventions, while also ensuring an appropriate criminal justice response to illicit drugs including national standards for diversion schemes for low level offending.
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- Inquiry: Drugs
- Home Affairs Committee
In a report published today, the Committee calls for a new legislative and funding framework that enables practical, risk-reducing interventions such as establishing a pilot drug consumption facility and drug testing at festivals. It further calls from a move away from an abstinence-only approach towards harm reduction with improved cross-working between police, health and social services.
The Committee found that law enforcement should continue to do all it can to stamp out the illicit trade of controlled drugs, but will need to be bolstered by a stronger public health response that helps people escape drug addiction and related criminality. The total cost of drugs to society is estimated to be £19 billion, more than twice the value of the illicit drug trade.
The Government’s 10-Year Drugs Strategy rightly emphasises a change in focus towards a public health approach to combatting drugs, the Committee finds. However, without a significant expansion in the range and availability of health-based interventions it is unlikely to have the transformative impact needed to tackle rising drug-related deaths and related harms.
Home Affairs Committee chair, Dame Diana Johnson, said:
“Drugs continue to cause significant harm to individuals and society. The governmental response must be able to deal with the complex harms drugs can cause and whilst the drug strategy is moving in the right direction, it requires much more meaningful action to tackle the broad range of drug-related problems.
“The criminal justice system will need to continue to do all it can to break up the criminal gangs that drive the trade in illicit drugs. However, it must also recognise that many children and young people involved need to be supported to escape not punished for their involvement.
“Fundamentally, we need to have the right interventions in place to help people break free from the terrible cycles of addiction and criminality that drug addiction can cause. Simply attempting to remove drugs from people’s live hasn’t worked. They need the right support to let them deal with addiction, but also psychosocial support and interventions that deal with the underlying trauma that may have led them to drugs in the first place.
“Over the course of the inquiry, we have seen a number of positive, locally-developed schemes make a real difference to those suffering from addiction and the wider communities. The Government should learn from the success as it develops best practice that can be implemented nation-wide.”
Drug laws and classification
Laws controlling the production, possession and supply of drugs are outdated and in need of reform, the Committee finds.
Existing classifications of controlled substances should be reviewed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to ensure they accurately reflect the risk of harm, with further reviews carried out every ten years. Psychedelic drugs should be reclassified as a matter of urgency in order to support clinical research into their medical or therapeutic uses.
The Home Affairs Committee is deeply concerned by the Home Office’s refusal to disclose findings of the ACMD’s 2016 report, and apparent reluctance to reduce the classification of controlled drugs on their advice. It calls on the Government to explain why this particular review, and no others, are withheld from public scrutiny.
Health-led drug strategy
The use of drugs in the UK poses a significant risk to public health but too little is done to address these risks either in the short or long term, the Home Affairs Committee finds. The Committee calls for a health-led drug strategy that greatly increases the range and availability of services specifically focussed on reducing the harm that drugs cause.
Safe consumption facilities would allow drug users to consume drugs in a sterile environment under medical supervision, reducing the risk of overdose and transmission of blood borne diseases. The Government should amend legislation and work with partners to establish a pilot for a safe consumption facility in order to provide an evidence base for their use in the UK as whole.
Drug-checking services can help reduce the harms caused by high strength or dangerous combinations of drugs, and provide advice on harm reduction to users. The Government should expand the availability of these services at music festivals and within the night-time economy, with a dedicated licensing scheme in place ahead of the 2024 festival season. It should also establish a national drug checking that would allow samples to be submitted anonymously by post, working with devolved governments to ensure a single, UK-wide service.
The Committee was greatly impressed by the impact of the Middlesbrough DAT programme for chronic heroin users, that combined diamorphine assisted treatment (DAT) with wrap-around psychosocial support services. The programme has benefits for public health and criminal justice sectors but the cost has proven prohibitive for local providers due to wider budget pressures. The Committee calls on the Government to provide secure centralised funding for these services and examine if they can be rolled out to other areas of the UK with acute heroin dependency needs.
Naloxone can be crucial in providing life-saving treatment for opioid related overdoses but in England it is not available to all front line services or drug-users who may need it. The Government should establish a national naloxone programme in England and ensure that all police forces in England and Wales are able to provide this treatment.
The Committee supports greater provision of cannabis based products for medicinal (CBPMs) use where there is comprehensive evidence that it can be an effective form of treatment. The Government should enable wider access of CBPMs on the NHS, if supported by the findings of the current ACMD review of their impact. Further research should also be undertaken for their use in treating chronic pain.
However, the Committee remains concerned by the harms that non-medical cannabis use may cause, particularly for young people. It does not believe that cannabis should be legalised or regulated for non-medical use
Criminal justice response
Improved use of diversion schemes, where police deal with low-level offending without the involvement of courts, can be an important tool in reducing drug-related crime. At present, the roll-out of such schemes across England and Wales has been inconsistent resulting in a postcode lottery in how low level drug offences are treated. The Committee calls on the government to develop national standards for diversion schemes to be used by all police forces in England and Wales, with guidance developed and reviewed to inform best practice.
Drug use can often be the consequence of personal trauma and may continue until this underlying trauma is addressed. Trauma-informed training and practices should be used by all police forces to help deal with drug offending. The Home Office should work with policing bodies and other stakeholders to develop guidance and training to support this.
Tackling county lines gangs must remain a priority and the Government is right to include this in the 10-Year Drugs Strategy. The Committee finds that the Government should also go further in ensuring vulnerable children and young people exploited by these gangs are kept out of the criminal justice system. Drug treatment services and exploitation services should be linked to ensure they can provide the right support to those affected.
The Committee welcomes the Government’s overall ambition to reduce the level of recreational drug use. However, it has serious concerns about the planned ‘escalating sanctions’ set out in the Government’s drug possession White Paper. More information is needed around the likely impact of the scheme and whether it would be as effective as police-led intervention
10-Year Drugs Strategy
In recognition of the new approach to controlled drugs, comprising criminal justice and public health, responsibility for drugs policy should be held jointly by the Home Office and the Department of Health. A single minister with responsibility for combating drugs should sit across both departments.
The Committee welcomes the overall ambition of the Government’s 10-Year Drugs Strategy and the initial response to the findings of the Independent Review of Drugs. However, it will need to go further if it is to have a meaningful impact on excess drug deaths in the UK.
Transformation of drug treatment and recovery services will require the security of long-term funding and support for a greater range of harm reduction approaches, in addition to existing abstinence-based programmes. Greater detail is needed in how the Government plans to overcome barriers to accessing treatment, including plans to tackle the stigma of drug addiction.