The prospects for drugs decriminalisation in England

With a review of the drugs strategy for England and Wales under way, there are calls for possession of some substances to be decriminalised. Josephine Hocking considers how this might affect substance misuse workers

With a review of the drugs strategy for England and Wales under way, there are calls for possession of some substances to be decriminalised. Josephine Hocking considers how this might affect substance misuse workers

Calls to decriminalise illegal drugs may come and go, but lessons learned from radical changes to Portugal’s drugs laws have reopened the debate on whether this would benefit society.

In 2001 the Portuguese government turned possession of drugs into an “administrative”, or public order offence. Instead of being prosecuted in court, people caught carrying drugs for personal use (defined as no more than 10 days’ supply) are dealt with by a “dissuasion board” that includes social workers, health professionals and lawyers, who can issue sanctions such as fines and community service, while also referring users to agencies for treatment.

Research has concluded that, since the changes came into effect, drug-taking by problematic users and adolescents, and drug-related deaths and illnesses have all decreased, while the number of drug users in treatment in Portugal rose from 23,000 to 38,000 between 1998 and 2008. (Crucially, treatment was expanded alongside decriminalisation.)

So how would such a move affect the tens of thousands of people working with drug users in the UK?

For Eileen Ronan, assistant director of addiction services at Newcastle-based charity Cyrenians, the role of substance misuse workers is to help people regain hope and aspiration, learn how to manage their lives and become valued members of society. In practice, individuals are allocated key workers employed by Cyrenians who help to address their addictions by providing access to services such as support groups, day centres, emergency accommodation, and help finding work.

Ronan suggests that, even if possession of some drugs were decriminalised, substance misuse workers would still have a significant role to play because her clients misuse a mixture of legal and illegal substances.

“It is irrelevant where someone buys their fix – alcohol in the supermarket or drugs from a dealer. They will get hold of something. Our job is to tackle the root causes of addiction,” says Ronan.

“Our service users have horrendous backgrounds, including child abuse, domestic violence, poverty and homelessness. Many use drugs and alcohol to help them cope.”

Sue Bandcroft, senior commissioning manager at Safer Bristol, a multi-agency drugs, alcohol and crime partnership, agrees that decriminalisation is a red herring.

“The social and health consequences of misusing legal substances are just as high,” she says. “If drugs are decriminalised, they will still be used. The policy wouldn’t reduce the social care workload.

“For drug users and the substance misuse professionals working with them, mental health, child protection and all the other issues would remain. Our energies are best spent on supporting drug users, getting them into treatment and assisting them with housing, education and support, not being distracted by decriminalisation debates.”

Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at Kent University, says the Portuguese strategy was a response to growing heroin use in the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and an increase in drug-related deaths and diseases, including HIV, Aids, TB and hepatitis B and C.

It has helped to fulfil the objective of reducing the divide between marginalised drug users and the rest of society, he says.

Research into Portugal’s system, co-authored by Stevens, found that decriminalisation could also reduce the stigma and fear felt by addicts and make drug users more likely to engage with treatment services.

Experienced substance misuse practitioner Angie Sparrowhawk, who works in the statutory and voluntary sector in West Sussex and Surrey, believes criminalising vulnerable people is wrong.

“Criminalising drug users is ludicrous and punitive,” she says. “It pushes people into a sub-culture of crime that is very hard to get out of. The threat of prison is not a deterrent to highly disadvantaged people, who are homeless and have little to lose. Prison is also likely to give people easy access to drugs.”

For now it seems the debate will continue to be an abstract one in this country, as the government is unlikely to decriminalise drugs anytime soon. The Home Office is due to publish a new drugs strategy later this year, after a consultation. But decriminalisation is “most definitely not being considered” because it is the wrong approach, a spokesperson said.

This article is published in the 14 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading If the UK followed Portugal…

Further reading

“What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs?”, Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens, British Journal of Criminology, 2010

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