Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one

Green Party leader Caroline Lucas sets out her calls for a new approach to dealing with drugs, and says drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one.

Caroline Lucas MP (Green, Brighton Pavilion) is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales; she is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs Policy Reform

Earlier this week, I was invited to speak to a meeting of NHS practitioners in Brighton about the government’s drugs policy. One of my priorities as a local MP is to tackle our city’s very sad reputation as the drugs death capital of the UK – and as I set out in my speech, I believe that a very different approach is needed for addressing the problem than the one which David Cameron’s own former speech writer has described as a “self defeating $100bn-a-year war” on drugs.


Drugs policy remains one of the most controversial issues facing politicians. There is a widespread acceptance that current policy isn’t working, but while many political leaders have admitted as much – including Mr Cameron himself before becoming prime minister – they seem to lose the will to act once in a position of power. As a result, we do not get the reasonable, mature and informed debate we need.

Yet there is growing agreement across the scientific and political communities, in the police and the legal professions, that the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working – and that we need to move towards an evidence-based, public health approach to addiction.

Just this month, the Global Commission on Drugs Policy called for a complete rethink of the way we deal with drugs in a report backed by figures such as Kofi Annan and Richard Branson. Here at home, Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has argued that decriminalising illicit use could “drastically reduce crime and improve health”, while the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, points to a:

“…growing body of comparative evidence suggesting that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences.”

We all know that drug misuse and drug-related crime destroys individuals, families and our communities. Over half the 85,000 people in UK prisons are thought to have serious drug problems. Rates of cannabis use and binge drinking by young people here are amongst the highest in Europe. I believe that all of these harms could be significantly reduced if the government acknowledged the fact that a repressive prohibition-based approach is not working.

Successive British governments have put their faith, blindly, in the idea that the illegality of drugs is in itself a deterrent. And our emphasis on criminalising and punishing drug use means that policy success is measured in terms of the number and size of drugs seizures, how many people are arrested and the severity of prison sentences – not in terms of reduced harms to individuals or society or levels of organised crime.

Shockingly, there has been no cost benefit assessment of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK, or any attempt to compare its effectiveness in reducing the societal, economic or health costs of drug misuse with an alternative approach based on treating drug addiction as a health issue – not a criminal one. In this age of austerity, when we are told that every penny of public spending must be justified, nobody is checking whether the war on drugs is value for money or money down the drain.

Any debate on drug policy needs to reflect the facts. Not only what is happening here in Britain but also in countries like Portugal, where the number of people taking heroin has halved since its use was decriminalised. In Switzerland a series of new policies based on public health rather than legality led to a sharp decline in heroin demand and crime.

And a comparison between Norway, which has a very liberal regime yet similar levels of drug use to Sweden, where strict controls are in place, suggests there is very little correlation between levels of punishment and levels of drug taking.

The UK government’s new strategy talks of:

“…a fundamentally different approach to tackling drugs and entirely new ambition to reduce drug use and dependence.”

Yet all the evidence suggests that underneath the rebranding, this is a rehash of the same old tired policy, which is simply not up to the job of reducing drugs-related harms.

In her introduction to last year’s drugs strategy document, home secretary Theresa May asserts that “drug use in the UK remains too high”, which begs the question “what is an acceptable level of drug use?” The government’s answer is simple – none. Hence its focus on full abstinence and eradication – and a narrative which measures success only in these terms.

My concern is that the obsession with abstinence may impact on the availability of treatment provision, especially when coupled with cuts to public spending. Allowing space for people to relapse is also critical; for those who want to end drug dependence, relapse is often part of the journey to eventual recovery, so denying this is likely to be counterproductive.

Furthermore, a shift in focus towards complete drug-free recovery runs the risk that individuals with a dependency will disengage prematurely from the treatment system, resulting in an increase in illicit use.

If the government is really serious about taking a “fundamentally different approach” to the drugs crisis, it should start by recognising that reducing drug related harms is a public health concern – and as such, should be subject to the same kinds of effectiveness and efficiency standards as other areas of public health.

So responsibility for drugs policy should sit with the Department of Health, not the Home Office. Only then can we start treating people dependent on drugs as patients rather than criminals – and start building on evidence-based methods of harm reduction, rather than hiding behind ideology and political convenience.

One key area where the current government’s approach does differ from previous manifestations is the emphasis on local empowerment. In this respect, its strategy echoes the Global Commission on Drugs Policy’s recommendation that local administrations be allowed to develop their own approaches – if there are grounds to believe these will deliver improved health or social outcomes.

The commission specifically uses the example of ‘decriminalisation of use’ policies, as having the potential to generate learning that in turn influence national and international strategies.

Here in Brighton and Hove, we understand more than most the consequences of a drugs policy that fails our citizens and our communities. And having seen the commitment locally to evidence-based treatment and support programmes, I believe we are also well placed to start shaping an alternative approach that actually works.

I am not alone in my thinking. The Chief Superintendent of Brighton and Hove, Graham Bartlett, has joined my calls for a potential decriminalisation of use and a new public health approach, saying:

“My personal view is that whilst production, supply and trafficking are and should remain crimes, the use of drugs is not well addressed through punitive measures.”

So in the spirit of the government’s Big Society and the new ‘localism’, I am organising a high level roundtable in Brighton bringing together medical experts, the police and other key local stakeholders to help develop this alternative approach. Over the coming months, I will be working closely with key agencies, healthcare professionals and community groups in Brighton and Hove to explore ways for us to make a change for the better.

Ultimately, whether at the national or the local level, this is about recognising the reality that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed – and thinking about dealing with drugs differently. It won’t be easy. A new approach, based on treating drug addiction as a health issue not a criminal one, will represent a significant shift in thinking.

Any changes should be brought in slowly and carefully, with each phase properly assessed before moving on to the next. But if we get this right, we can reduce drug-related deaths in our cities, cut down on drug-related crimes on our streets, and make our communities safer.

43 Responses to “Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one”

  1. FromTheSham

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  2. James McKenna

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  3. Shaun5446

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  4. Per Møllegård

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  5. Terry Waywell

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  6. 1_little_cloud

    RT @leftfootfwd via @JayMcKenna87
    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //://bit.ly/intwsR

  7. Joe-Lynn Micallef

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  8. Alan Simpson

    “@leftfootfwd: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //t.co/03IReUY”

  9. bigboi

    this is all true, but unfortunately this is not going to be accepted by the general public for a very long time. wont come about in my lifetime for sure

  10. Aaaaargh!

    I agree drugs is a medical issue but it still shouldn’t be an excuse for crime. Just because someone was drug dependent doesn’t make it any easier for the victims of drug related crime.

    Rather than classing drug use as a ‘mitigating circumstance’ I’d like to see sentences increased when drugs are involved.

    I’d also like to see harsher sentences for dealers, especially when they are involving kids, as users or carriers.

  11. Adam Edvalson

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one: My concern is that the obsession with abstine… //bit.ly/kAYsjZ

  12. Dr. Brian Perks

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one: Shockingly, there has been no cost benefit as… //bit.ly/iLGaWJ

  13. 13eastie

    Ms Lucas suffers from the misapprehensions that afflicted a generation of middle-class hippies before her: that illegal drug abuse is a matter for the individual conscience alone, and one which, being ‘victimless’, society should be content to permit.

    Moreover, she appears not to see the ludicrous paradox that society should show only tolerance while the innocent pay the penalty for others’ utter selfishness.

    Make no mistake.

    People who buy illegal drugs sustain society’s most unsavoury characters. They line the pockets of crooks, who ruin families and neighbourhoods with gun and knife crime. They provide a financial basis for a line of succession among drug dealers. The terrorise the community with the threat, often realised, of myriad crime, often violent, frequently undetected and largely unpunished (THIS is the true reason that half of those in jail have drug problems).

    They see to it that an evil minority get rich while wilfully destroying the potential of many of the ‘customers’. And many of them outrage society with the wicked sprees of wrong-doing in which they engage in order to fund their ‘victimless’ habits.

    It is curious that the message of tolerance and permissiveness always seems to delivered not by the folk who actually have to witness and endure the horrific consequences and on-going peril of drug-related crime in their commmunties, but by the left-leaning affluent middle-class types whose main research tool is a MacBook.

    Where on earth is the logic that says the insurer (the State) should not be obliged to protect the underwriter (the hapless Tax-payer) by using every means available to mitigate his losses in respect of irresponsible policy-holders ([insert any term you care to choose for illegal drug-user]).

    It is the purchase, and not the supply, of illegal drugs that perpetuates the cycle of destruction in our communities; it is nonsensical to suggest that there should be no consequences for those that fuel it.

    If drug-buyers are happy to fund the destruction of other people’s lives while allowing me to foot the bill for the ensuing havoc, I’m very relaxed indeed about the stigma of criminality they might face.

  14. Kristen Gobbo

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  15. mindmovies2

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one: My concern is that the obsession with abstine… //bit.ly/kAYsjZ

  16. HealThings

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one //bit.ly/lFlStd

  17. Kevin Grocott

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  18. Rebecca Daddow

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

  19. mr. Sensible

    13eastie for about the first time I find myself agreeing with a lot of what you say.

    By all means have better treatment, but decriminalize? Never! Legalize? Never!

  20. Ashlen

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one: Yet there is growing agreement across the sci… //bit.ly/mJ7hYk

  21. Caroline Allen

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one //pulse.me/s/eF0F

  22. Jane Bailey

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR

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  24. Rob_E

    Reading this article and thinking about the way people have immediately responded too it as well as the debate (or lack of) on drugs in the UK, I can’t help but think this all boils down to the question of whether there is something inherently morally reprehensible about the use of drugs; a question that people don’t really make explicit. How can we have a coherent drugs policy if our society can’t even properly acknowledge the fundamental question here? Its fair to say that British society is very divided on this issue, seeing that a good proportion of our population take or have taken drugs, and another are so vehemently against it. I worry about the consequences of making this into a very dry, technical issue – de-politicising it if you will – without properly addressing the fundamental questions. In particular the scientific discourse surrounding drugs has been the subject of so much political meddling over the years that I’d hate to see this degenerate any more than it already is into a tug of war between scientists and politicians. People on both sides of the debate would lose any remaining belief in either drugs policy or the science involved. What we need is clarity, not more confusion. I’m not talking about self-assured moral clarity here, but surely we need some kind of social consensus similar to that which underpins most of the rest of UK law.

  25. James

    13eastie – because the approach we are currently taking works so well? Drug use continues to rise, the “war on drugs” is completely unwinnable. A HUGE market exists for these products, and there will always be people willing to supply that market. Prohibition doesn’t work. It’s never worked. To keep doing the same thing and hoping things will somehow get better is ludicrous.

    You say the suppliers are the real unsavoury characters. You say the customer lines the pocket of those who terrorise communities. Surely you can see the paradox. By making it illegal all you are doing is driving the supply chain into the hands of criminals. It becomes a free market in the truest sense of the word, since it’s illegal the sellers don’t have to worry about the law, never mind regulations. In any market place, the most competitive will thrive, and in this case, competition invariably leads to violence and organised crime.

    Drugs policy should be evidence led, but it never is. Despite all the evidence that suggests we need to try a different approach, it’s still considered political suicide to be seen “soft” on drugs.

  26. Ray Baker

    How long do we have to witness the failure of current policy before we agree to change it. “People who buy illegal drugs sustain society’s most unsavoury characters^, yes they do – so stop making it illegal to buy drugs (as is the case with alcohol). and their market will disappear virtually overnight. It may be a bitter pill to swallow (no pun intended), but the problems we face with regard to drug abuse and addiction lie much deeper than any legislation can impact upon – as we have seen for many, many years. What we need to do is to tackle the factors within our society that contribute to the levels of alcohol and drug abuse – not punish everyone who uses drugs as a form of escape from what clearly is a society that fails them.

  27. 13eastie

    @5

    “My personal view is that whilst production, supply and trafficking are and should remain crimes, the use of drugs is not well addressed through punitive measures.”

    This is what Ms Lucas’ wacky policeman said.

    There is no proposal on offer to legalise drug-dealing, so it will remain ‘underground’.

    So you are left with a choice about whether the law should operate to prevent people from funding the activities of organised criminals whose malevolent effects on society are far greater cumulatively than those of any terrorist group.

  28. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR #NewsClub

  29. Stonermc

    RT @leftfootfwd: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one says @CarolineLucas: //bit.ly/intwsR #NewsClub

  30. Michael

    Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one I Left Foot Forward I Caroline Lucas – //j.mp/jDWArF

  31. Rory

    It is time to end prohibition.

    It is time to stop telling other people what they can do to their own bodies.

    It is time we grew up and stopped trying to punish people because they made a choice some of us would rather they did not make.

    It is time to look to Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal, whose drug policies are based on pragmatism and evidence.

    It is time: and the war on drugs will end – because more and more people that look at this issue are concluding the war has got to end.

  32. Addiction Treatment

    Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one … //bit.ly/lyJ5v6

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    Brit MP Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one //bit.ly/kHi6gZ

  34. DrugTestNetwork

    RT @reneweveryday: Brit MP Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one //bit.ly/kHi6gZ

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  37. Ned Wicker

    Wow, this is a VERY difficult problem. The current “war on drugs”isn’t working but legalizing heroin seems like going too far in the other direction.

    What if the penalty for heroin use was changed to home monitoring, required treatment and drug testing in stead of incarceration? More treatment has got to be better than just legalizing it and letting the chips fall where they may.

  38. Rory

    New Wicker
    Legalising could mean a number of different things.

    In Switzerland – they have strictly controlled regulation. It is not possible to buy it at the corner shop, or next to your breakfast cereals at the supermarket.

  39. Daniel Pitt

    Drug addiction should be a health issue, not a criminal one //t.co/5mJlKDh #ConDemNation

  40. Carole Murphy

    Not one person here has mentioned alcohol. What about the damage that causes? How many of those of you against change drink? What about the destruction this legal drug causes, including costs to taxpayers for health, missed days off work etc etc. Unless all drugs are treated equally in the eyes of the law, the stigma will remain for so-called drug addicts, and the attitudes of some of the general public will not change, and therefore NOTHING else will change.

  41. Not__A__Number

    Great stuff, I look forward to hearing more.

    EDIT: Whoops didn’t see the date on this article!

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