It’s about time we reconsidered our attitude to drug use
Hands up those who don’t take ‘mood altering substances’ whether alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or heroin - to name but a few!
What is the rationale behind making some of these substances legal and others illegal?
Let’s consider some facts:
- In 2014 there were 8,697 alcohol related deaths and approximately 96,000 smoking related deaths in the UK.
- In 2015 there were 952 deaths from heroin and morphine related substances and the figures are coming down.
“There you are!” I hear you cry, “By making these drugs illegal we reduce the death rates”. If that is the case, would it not be rational to make tobacco and alcohol use illegal?
But hold on a minute...
- Only 8.6 per cent of adults between the ages of 16 – 65 use illicit drugs whilst over 80 per cent use alcohol.
- 14 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women are in prison for drug related offences = 13,050 people • re-conviction rates are more than double for prisoners who reported using drugs in the four weeks before custody compared with prisoners who had never used drugs (62 per cent versus 30 per cent).
- 19 per cent of people reporting heroin use, said they had been introduced to and used heroin for the first time while in prison.
- It costs more than £40,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail.
I could go on, but ever since the deaths of four of my patients from heroin use during my time as a GP in Marlborough - young people branded as criminals for the use of the drugs let alone the petty crime they were all involved in to 'feed their habit' - I have been convinced that by bringing all drug use into the public health arena rather than the criminal justice system, we would have a major impact on mortality and morbidity rates and of course on crime rates and our prison population.
I have no doubt that my four patients would be alive today having received the help they deserved within the NHS if it were not for the fact that what they were doing was illegal.
In 1974 50 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women smoked. Now those figures have dropped to approximately 20 per cent for both men and women, precisely because of the public health measures that have been introduced.
We all remember the days when during parties, popping into the pub for a pint or even travelling by bus, train or air one would be surrounded by smoke and smokers. And yet that is a thing of the past precisely because of laws introduced as public health measures rather than as outlawing the habit.
There is a global change of attitude and decriminalisation has already taken place in many countries in the world. In the UK we are getting left behind.
In Portugal where drug use was decriminalised in 2001, the findings have been that there has been:
- an increased use of cannabis.
- decreased use of heroin.
- increased uptake of treatment for drug related problems.
- a reduction in drug related deaths.
In Portugal decriminalization has enabled earlier intervention and more targeted therapeutic responses to drug users and also increased collaboration across a network of services and the increased attention to adopting policies that work. This is perceived to be reducing the level of current and future drug use and harm.
To what extent is our attitude to drug users in the UK fuelled by the illegality of what they are doing - “They’re all criminals and scroungers!”? And how far is it obstructing a proper pragmatic and human approach to their problems?
What will it take to persuade the Murdoch press and our politicians that decriminalisation of all drug use is the course we should take here in the UK and that by doing so we shall dramatically reduce the prison population and its cost, and, with the provision of proper care for those with drug problems, reduce mortality and morbidity rates?
If you agree with my arguments, perhaps you would consider writing to our MP Claire Perry on the subject. You might be saving lives!
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