Why decriminalisation should not overshadow prevention

Mentor responds to the ongoing debate surrounding the Home Office's recently published "controversial" report on the decriminalisation of drugs.

7 November 2014 | Policy

There has been a lot of noise and consternation in the aftermath of the Home Office publishing its “controversial” report on the decriminalisation of drugs. In truth, it has been building for some time, with the coalition leaders always at odds over what constitutes effective drug policy. But the report’s release has thrust the “soft on drugs” / “war on drugs” dispute back into the public sphere.

The suggestion that decriminalising drugs could have benefits for the criminal justice system provoked entrenched responses across the political spectrum and in the media, highlighting the contentious nature of the issue. After allegedly “holding up” the release of the document for months, the Home Office was pushed to publish an official statement clarifying that it had “absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs”, apparently triggering the resignation of Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker.

 Practitioners have welcomed this dramatic shift in drug policy rhetoric, arguing that decriminalisation will remove the barriers between addicts and treatment, thus spurring better, more effective services. (Certainly the example of Portugal would support this, where the number of addicts seeking treatment increased by almost 150 percent between 2000 when it decriminalised the possession of all drugs in 2003).

Although radical policy change will always draw criticism from some quarters, it is at least reassuring to see policymakers consulting the evidence. This is the UK government’s first evidence-based study on drug policy, ending decades of rhetoric that the only way to reduce drug use is by instituting harsher penalties, for which there is no real evidence whatsoever.

However, amid the political infighting and fraught debate over the merits of (de)criminalisation, we are in danger – again – of forgetting the most important tool in the fight to reduce drug use in the UK: evidence-based prevention. Last year 21,995 young people accessed treatment services because alcohol and other drugs had seriously affected their lives; regardless of the legal environment, we need to be targeting these young people earlier, enabling them to make positive decisions that prevent problems before they develop.

By focusing the debate on the outcome, we are missing the point – and it is a point that must be stressed again and again as long as investment in early intervention remains so piecemeal.

There is clear evidence that delaying the incidence of drug use among young people vastly reduces the likelihood of them developing serious substance issues as an adult. Yet the NHS allocates only 4 percent of its budget on preventing ill health in general – far less on drug-specific prevention – and UK government spending on early action is stuck at 6 percent.

Beyond promoting the health and wellbeing of our nation’s children and young people, which is clearly the primary concern, there is an economic argument. With each individual problematic drug user costing the state up to £800,000 over the course of a lifetime, through drug-related crime, services, lack of income and an array of other costs[1], it is in all of our interests to act early. So why do we invest so little in developing, evidencing, and delivering interventions that focus on prevention?

Mentor’s mission is to work for an effective, comprehensive and national prevention strategy that shifts resources away from reactionary strategies and initiatives that have been proven to fail to interventions that work. Therefore, while we welcome the Home Office report, which (hopefully) signifies a shift towards evidence-informed drug policy in general, the intense debate around (de)criminalisation, which targets only the symptoms, is missing the point. Effective drug policy demands more research and investment in developing interventions that instil children and young people with the self-confidence to make positive decisions.

[1] PwC (2008) Review of Prison-based Drug Treatment Funding, London: Ministry of Justice.