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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

A Radical New Approach to the UK's Drug Problem

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Sim Sunner

The UK has lost the War on Drugs. With the highest number of drug-related deaths since records began last year[1] and 175,000 drug offences recorded by police[2], a 13% increase from the previous year. It is safe to say that the UK still has a Drug Problem. The UK was branded as the “addiction capital of Europe”[3] because of the increasingly high rates of addition in 2013 and little has changed since then.

And this only confirmed by the publication of a damning Drug Review published earlier this year.[4] It details how the UK drug market is now worth £9.4bn as higher-quality drugs flood the market. It also states how the issue is only exacerbated by funding issues for not only drug addiction treatment and recovery but also when it comes to law enforcement policing the problems.

A radical policy change is required in order to attempt to remedy this public health emergency. Our drug laws aren’t working, despite the Government’s insistence that they are. The full criminalisation of drugs causes mass incarceration and a drug market that finances violent criminal organisation, all of which a disproportionate effect on minority groups.

One proposed solution to this crisis is to do decriminalise the possession of all illegal drugs. Decriminalisation is the legal process where all substances would remain illegal but the criminal justice system will not prosecute a person for possession up to a certain amount.[5] The UK’s Health and Social Care Committee agrees that this could prevent the current rise in drug-related deaths as well as save money from the criminal justice system that could instead be invested in treatment and prevention. Currently, drugs cost the UK economy £20bn, but only £600m is spent on treatment.

There is no denying that this is a radical solution and totally the opposite stance to our current position but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. In fact, there is substantial evidence that it does and does so extremely well. It is so compelling in fact that more and more places are adopting this approach.

Portugal when they made the move to change the possession of drugs from a criminal matter to a civil one in 2001. They were the first country to do so and the success of this decision has been monumental. If caught with a small amount of any drug, the person in question would be given either a warning or summons to appear before a local commission of a doctor, lawyer and a social worker to discuss the treatment and support services available. The crisis in the country soon stabilised and over the past fifteen years or so they have witnessed drastic drops in problematic drug use, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. And the level of drug use has not gone up, despite fears that this would be the case.

Like previously mentioned Portugal’s success has been so influential that the State of Oregon in the United States made the same move. The State of Oregon not only elected Joe Biden the 46th President of the United States this election season but they also approved Measure 110 also known as the Drug Addiction and Recovery Act. A measure that will come into force in February next year.[6] The Measure mandates personal non-commercial possession of certain drugs including Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamine, Oxycodone, Psychedelics and other drugs under a specified amount from a misdemeanour or felony charge to a violation subject to either a fine or a completed health assessment. As well as the establishment and funding of addiction recovery centres to provide drug users with triage, health assessments, treatment, recovery services.[7]

Whilst the UK has made regional moves towards decriminalisation; since 2016 police forces in Durham and Avon & Somerset have been operating pilot schemes where those who are caught in possession of drugs are diverted to local drug education workshops, instead of being prosecuted.[8] Midlands Police also devised a scheme at the start of the year that aimed to help those avoid arrest and criminal prosecution for possession of a small amount of drugs in an attempt to break the cycle crime related to drug offences as well as save the taxpayer money by cutting down on Drug offences that cost the force £1.4bn each year.[9]

The case for decriminalisation nationwide is extremely compelling.

Firstly, what’s being proposed is not full Legalisation. Decriminalisation allows the personal possession and individual use of illegal drugs whilst also allowing the prosecution of illegal suppliers and importers. Heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs cost society more through their contribution to crime than from the actual users of the aforementioned drug.[10] The social and economic cost of keeping drugs illegal is substantial. Law Enforcement of illegal drugs cost upwards of £4bn and yet only 1% of imported cocaine is intercepted by Border Patrol.[11] The social costs, however, maybe even more damning as the effect of prison sentences only worsens the drug problem by isolating users from their communities and support systems as well as exposing them to violence whilst serving their sentence. The current drug policies also disproportionally affect Black and ethnic minority offenders as they are far more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than other defendants.[12] If society can successfully mitigate the social damage and cost of Nicotine and Alcohol and we have the chance to do the same for drugs. Decriminalisation has the potential to reduce the burden on police and the criminal justice system.

Perhaps most importantly, this solution stops society criminalising people who need treatment for their addiction. Addiction is a medical problem and should be treated as such, our current strategy criminalises a health problem and punishes addicts for it. There is no denying that Portugal’s success in adopting Decriminalisation can be partially attributed to significant attitude changes and language shifts amongst the population. Drug Addicts were no longer ‘junkies' but instead ‘people who use drugs’. Individual drug use should not be viewed as a criminal issue but a public health one. Keeping drugs illegal only discourages people from seeking help due to the fear of the stigma attached to it. There needs to be an emphasis on the amount of harm being caused over the amount of users. There is no denying that drugs are harmful but containing them and promoting health will be more effective longterm than the current blanket criminalisation. This could also potentially lead to a shift in public attitudes to a more empathic society.

Although Decriminalisation is not as effective as Legalisation in tackling other issues relating to the illegal drug market, it is a step in the right direction by freeing up both resources and time of enforcement agencies. The demonisation of users only perpetuates the current crisis the UK is in.



[1] Office of National Statistics, Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2019 registrations (2020). [2] ‘How many drug crimes are committed?’ (Drugwise 2019) <> accessed November 2020. [3] ‘No Quick Fix’ (The Centre for Social Justice 2013) <> accessed November 2020. [4] Black, ‘Review of Drugs’ (Home Office, 2020) <> accessed November 2020. [5] ‘Decriminalisation’ (The Free Dictionary, 2020) <>accessed November 2020. [6] ‘Oregon Measure 110, Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative (2020)’ (Ballotpedia, 2020) <,_Drug_Decriminalization_and_Addiction_Treatment_Initiative_(2020)#cite_note-SoS-1> accessed November 2020. [7] ‘Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division Initiative, Referendum, and Referral Search for 2020’. [8] ‘Bristol and Durham show UK First Steps towards Drug Decriminalisation’ (volteface,2019) <> accessed November 2020. [9] ‘Police Commissioner funds new scheme to break the cycle of drug crime’ (Police and Crime Commissioner, October 2020) <> accessed November 2020. [10] Miller, ‘The Case for Decriminalsation Drug Use is overwhelming’ (Financial Times, 2020) <> accessed November 2020. [11] Anderson and Weerdenburg, ‘Why are police still charging youth with simple drug possession? The case for decriminalization’ (, 2020) <> accessed November 2020. [12] Sentencing Council, ‘Investigating the association between an offender’s sex and ethnicity and the sentence imposed at the Crown Court for drug offences’ (2019) <>

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