UK Government’s zero-tolerance drugs policy is proving deadly

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Medical experts denounce policy's "false claims and empty promises" and doctors join call for decriminalisation of drugs — but is the Government capable of listening?

Deaths caused by drugs in the United Kingdom have reached a record high. Nearly one in three fatal drug overdoses in Europe is recorded in the UK. New, deadly and highly addictive substances such as spice, crystal meth and fentanyl — an opioid up to 100 times stronger than heroin — are taking hold in neighbourhoods and town centres.

Demand for treatment grows as the Government cuts funding to local authority drug treatment budgets. At the same time, thousands of recreational and medicinal drug users are pulled into the criminal justice system while drug traffickers get rich off an industry worth £10 billion a year in the UK alone. Yet year after year the Tory government ignores expert advice and pushes a zero-tolerance vision of a "drug-free society" in the face of increasingly fatal results.

The BMJ, the peer-reviewed journal of the British Medical Association, has given a damning review of Government drug policy and its effects, stating it "…lacks honesty, coherence, and realistic financial support. It is based on false claims and is full of empty promises.

"As a result, more people will die from drug related deaths that could have been prevented."

A follow up piece called the drug strategy "at best, based on a misdiagnosis of the root of the problem", as it "ignores socio-economic causes" of drug taking.

Martin Powell, head of campaigns at the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, has also blamed policy for a rise in deaths. He told the Independent that "the Government must accept responsibility for the record number of people dying from overdoses for four years in a row. They're a direct result of the Home Office's policy on drugs."

Funding cuts are exacerbating an already desperate situation and the Government knows this. Its own advisors on the ACMD's Recovery Committee said such cuts were "short-sighted and a catalyst for disaster", and warned that England's "world class drug treatment system….is now being dismantled".

Analysis by the Observer confirmed that the number of drug fatalities is highest in areas where cuts to drug treatment budgets have been harshest. Since 2013, 85% of councils in areas with high drug mortality rates have cut spending on treatment. Funding for treatment in Blackpool, the area of England that suffers the most drug-related deaths, has been halved, a cut of £2.5million.

The founder of UK Addiction Treatment Eytan Alexander said "these cuts are killing people" as fewer people get the help they need.

Now the Royal College of Physicians, which represents 34,000 doctors across the globe, has joined the BMJ in backing the Royal Society for Public Health report 'Taking a New Line on Drugs', which calls for the decriminalisation of street drugs including cannabis and heroin, and advocates treating drug disorders as a health issue, rather than a criminal one, with a focus on harm reduction.

These once radical ideas have been government policy in Portugal for the past 17 years as well as the backbone of joint recommendations on drugs issued by the United Nations and World Health Organisation since 2017.

This evidence-based approach to drugs means that for three decades now, drug consumption rooms (DCRs) have been operating in Europe to provide a safe, clean space for drug users to inject. Extensive research has shown DCRs reduce disease transmission through providing sterile needles, help prevent drug overdoses and fatalities, and successfully connect users with treatment services. There's no evidence to suggest that DCRs increase drug use or social problems — on the contrary, such facilities make getting treatment easier while reducing harm caused by injecting drugs. They also provide early insight into new patterns of drug use, important in light of the vast array of synthesised illegal drugs now supplied over the internet. That some DCRs have actually closed down due to reduced demand for them is surely a testament to their success in reducing problematic drug use.

Even the Government's own research in 2014 concluded DCRs reduced fatalities and social problems associated with drug taking, and found that locally-led schemes were most successful. Still, the Government remains in its chosen position, head buried firmly in the sand.

While the Government stalls, others are urgently searching for ways around the obstacles to providing evidence-based, life saving treatments. Scotland has the most drug fatalities in the whole of Europe, and in the region of Dumfries and Galloway, drug deaths doubled in the last year. Calls for a pilot of DCRs in Glasgow gained cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament, and a Private Member's Bill [PDF] is now in progress to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to allow DCRs to operate free from criminal prosecution.

So far, the government's response has been a stubborn negative, with Home Office minister Victoria Atkinsstating: "We have no intention of introducing drug consumption rooms, nor do we have any intention of devolving the United Kingdom policy on drug classification and the way in which we deal with prohibited drugs to Scotland".

Since then, three UK police crime commissioners have written to Atkins in support of the DCR pilot, believing that DCRs "reduce overdose fatalities and ambulance call-outs for overdose" as well as lowering the risk of infections.

The bill is still in its infancy, with its second reading due in October 2018. Given the stone cold response from central government so far, some campaigners say Scotland cannot afford to wait it out and have urged the Scottish Parliament to declare a public health emergency and introduce special measures such as DCRs.

A growing number of experts, doctors, campaigners and even police have united in their call for evidence-based methods to deal with the harm caused by drug disorders, including decriminalisation and drug consumption rooms. Both solutions are completely at odds with the Government's official strategy, which insists on pursuing the failed war on drugs regardless of the cost to life.

Written by:

Louise Reynolds
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