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The UK must decriminalise drug possession to stop deaths, MPs say

4,359 deaths were attributed drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018

In the wake of rising drug-related deaths in the UK that spell a public health emergency, a cross-party group of MPs have called for radical change to the UK’s drug policy. Chaired by Liberal Democrat Sarah Wollaston, the Health and Social Care Committee have stated that drug possession for personal use should not be a criminal matter, but a civil matter. The group calls for policy to focus on healthcare, not prosecution.

According to the committee’s report, last year there were 2,670 deaths attributed to drug misuse in England – a 16 per cent increase from 2017. There are, clearly, desperately-needed changes to be made, as the report outlines that the United Kingdom has some of the highest drug death rates in Europe, particularly in Scotland. UK drug deaths are increasing year on year, but the report says “there has been a failure to act on the evidence”. In order to curb this crisis, the cross-party MPs have urged ministers to consider moving drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care. 

The numbers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlight that 4,359 deaths were attributed drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018 – th states represent the highest since records started in 1993. Scotland’s numbers on drug-related death toll are on par with the US, at a recorded high of 1,187.

If the government agrees to carry out a decriminalisation consultation, the committee have said this will save money from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in prevention and treatment – this approach was witnessed in Portugal, where drug rates have fallen dramatically. 

However, the committee is calling for more than the decriminalisation of personal drug possession; believing the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs would not be effective without investing in harm reduction, support and treatment services for addiction. Sarah Wollaston has said decriminalisation alone “would not be sufficient”. There must be a “radical upgrade in treatment and holistic care for those who are dependent on drugs, and this should begin without delay,” she adds.

A recent study found that some major UK cities harboured the highest numbers of cocaine users in Europe, including Bristol and London. On average, 23kg of the Class A drug was being consumed in London on the daily, meaning the capital’s cocaine market is now worth approximately £1bn per year. 

Back in July, a cross-party group of MPs including Labour’s David Lammy, Liberal Democrat Normal Lamb, and the Tories’ Jonathan Djanogly declared their support for cannabis legalisation, predicting that the Class B drug will be fully legalised in the UK within five to 10 years.

Drug charity Release has backed the report, as well as Professor David Nutt, the government’s former Chief Drug Misuse Adviser, and Dr James Nicholls, the Chief Executive of Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Nutt, who was fired for claiming LSD and ecstasy were more dangerous than alcohol, told the Guardian: “this is not the first time parliamentary committees have recommended major changes to the drug and alcohol laws. Let’s hope that this one is the last, and that the government take heed of this report.” If we are to seriously get drugs under control, James Nicholls said “we must legalise and regulate their supply as well as decriminalising people who use them.”