CEO Blog: Leading public health bodies add weight to prevention

My comments on the Taking a New Line on Drugs report and a look at the potential for prevention to have a more prominent role within the UK's approach to drugs misuse.

17 June 2016 | CEO Blog

These are changing times in the way that we talk about drug misuse in the UK. Yesterday, two of the country’s leading public health organisations – the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health – published a report that challenged the whole premise of the government’s drugs policy. A “sea change in approach is required”, they argued – one that includes a greater focus on treatment and prevention.

The report was picked up by a number of mainstream mediaoutlets, which led with the recommendation that possession and personal use of illegal drugs should be decriminalised. RSPH argues that the drugs policy has failed; that an inconsistent classification system and a focus on enforcement has perpetuated stigmatisation and criminalisation, with resultant harms having a disproportionate impact on socio-economically deprived groups. They conclude that “finite resources are not being effectively targeted at reducing harm.”

The overarching belief that drug misuse is a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, and should be addressed through treatment and support, has made the headlines. But it was the integral role of prevention as one of the “five key pillars” of RSPH’s strategy that piqued Mentor’s interest. Since its foundation, Mentor has advocated that prevention must be at the centre of our approach to drugs misuse; it is therefore exciting to see this position increasingly taken up by the leading authorities on public health, as well as some politicians and the wider public.

The report recognises the importance of giving young people “the tools and understanding… to make informed choices about drugs use”, and calls for better standards in PSHE in order to deliver “prevention through universal education.” Citing both Mentor’s research – written by my colleagues Ben Thurman and Jamila Boughelaf and published by the peer-reviewed international journal, Drugs and Alcohol Today and our ADEPIS programme, they argue that effective drugs education can help young people develop the skills and understanding to avoid not just drug harm, but “the whole spectrum” of health and wellbeing issues.

There is a clear and pressing need then, for the provision of drugs education that is both universally available to all young people, and in line with prevention best practice.

RSPH, Taking a New Line on Drugs, p. 25.

Speaking on BBC radio on Thursday, I lent support to many of the report’s recommendations and was optimistic that it might signal a shift in the way we prioritise prevention in the UK.

What I really like is the way that it proposes a more rounded, education and health perspective on the drugs problem... It talks about the need to educate young people through well-founded, evidence-based approaches.”

Regardless of the politically-charged issue of decriminalisation, I believe that we now have a real opportunity to channel more investment into universal evidence-based drugs education and targeted prevention activities for young people at greater risk.

While it will require a huge shift in approach, the long-term benefits of prioritising prevention over enforcement could be even greater – both for the health and wellbeing of young people and in terms of cost savings in youth justice and healthcare. And with RSPH and FPH adding their voice to a growing coalition of organisations and individuals that support a prevention focus, and a new drugs strategy soon to be released, there is increasing optimism that government will effect the “sea change in approach” that is required.