Every drug death is avoidable. However, the United Kingdom, and in particular Scotland, have amongst the highest drug death rates in Europe. The evidence we have heard leads us to conclude that UK drugs policy is failing.
The rate of drug-related deaths has now risen to the scale of a public health emergency. In England in 2018 there were 2,670 deaths directly attributed to drug misuse, an increase of 16% since 2017—if other causes of premature death amongst people who use drugs were included, it is likely that this figure would approximately double.
We recommend a radical change in UK drugs policy from a criminal justice to a health approach. A health focused and harm reduction approach would not only benefit those who are using drugs but reduce harm to and the costs for their wider communities. Responsibility for drugs policy should move from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.
We recommend that the Government should consult on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use from a criminal offence to a civil matter. The Government should examine the Portuguese system, where decriminalisation was implemented as one part of a comprehensive approach to drugs, including improving treatment services, introducing harm reduction interventions, and better education, prevention and social support. Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system that is more effectively invested in prevention and treatment.
Decriminalisation will not be effective without investing in holistic harm reduction, support and treatment services for drug addiction. Doing so would save lives and provide better protection for communities.
Evidence based guidelines for treating people with drug dependency do exist, but there is an unacceptable gap between best practice and what services are actually able to deliver to people, as well as wide variation.
Many people using drug treatment services are growing older and living with complex illnesses. Those living with both addiction and underlying mental illness find it difficult to access adequate treatment and services.
Drug treatment services have faced funding cuts of 27% over the past three years, at a time when costs are rising.
Although our inquiry has focused on the harms caused by illicit drugs, dependency on prescription medicines is an emerging and worrying issue which requires greater attention from government.
Harm reduction interventions–including needle and syringe programmes, drug checking services, naloxone, drug consumption rooms and heroin assisted treatment–can all play an important role in preventing deaths amongst drug users as well as protecting their communities by reducing the harm from discarded syringes and drug related crime.
We call on the Government to direct significant investment into drug treatment services as a matter of urgency, and to also make sufficient funding available to ensure that heroin assisted treatment, naloxone, and needle and syringe programmes are available. Drug consumption rooms should be piloted in areas of high need. There should be greater efforts to support those at higher risk, including people in prison and at the point of release from prison.
We recommend that the Government conduct a review of the commissioning of drug treatment services to consider how they should be strengthened to enable them to co-ordinate and deliver the much-needed improvements to drug treatment services as effectively as possible. The Government should also address the current and predicted future workforce shortfall.
The first priority in developing a comprehensive response to drugs must be to invest in existing drug treatment services, and extend and develop harm reduction initiatives.
The Government also needs to fund a comprehensive package of education, prevention and support measures focused both on prevention of drug use amongst young people, and on improving the life chances of people who are recovering from drug use.
Published: 23 October 2019