Professor Alex Stevens

Professor Alex Stevens comments on new drugs policy report

Alex Stevens, Professor in Criminal Justice in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, has commented on the Health and Social Care Committee’s first report of Session 2019–20, Drugs policy (HC 143), which was published on Wednesday 23 October.

He said: ‘A cross-party group of MPs has called for ‘radical change’ in UK drug policy to deal with the ‘public health emergency’ of drug-related deaths. These deaths, as pointed out by the Health and Social Care Select Committee, have risen rapidly to their highest ever level. But instead of investing in life-saving, cost-effective services, the government has overseen substantial cuts to funding.

‘The Parliamentary committee’s most controversial recommendation may be its call for the decriminalisation of the possession of all drugs for personal use, as occurred in Portugal in 2001. They also call for the introduction of medically supervised drug consumption rooms, which they saw in action in Frankfurt. They also argue for greater availability of services enabling festival and nightclub-goers to get drugs tested and receive safety advice, as is already provide by the charity The Loop.

‘This is all part of their proposed shift to an evidence-based, health-focused approach to drugs. This would also involve moving lead responsibility for drug policy from the Home Office – which has traditionally focused on law enforcement – to the Department of Health and Social Care.

‘My research on drug policy – and especially on alternative ways of dealing with drug possession – shows that there could be substantial benefits from following the MPs’ recommendations. In other countries – including Portugal, but also the Czech Republic, Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands – reducing the punishment of people who use drugs has reduced the burden imposed on the criminal justice system. It has also protected people from the damage to their job prospects and relationships that come with a criminal record. And research across many countries suggests that reducing punishments for drug users is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in drug use among young people.

‘This is not the first committee to recommend a different approach to drug policy in the UK, but it is the first to come after the United Nations have also recommended decriminalisation, and is the first to coincide with a drug death crisis. As the chair of the committee, Dr Sara Wollaston MP, has stated:”every drug death should be regarded as preventable”. This report gives the government another opportunity to change tack and save lives.’

Disclosure: Professor Stevens was an adviser to the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s inquiry on drug policy. He did not write its report.

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Professor Alex Stevens