Will McMahon

Will McMahon, Deputy Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, considers the next steps for decriminalising drugs in the wake of our recent report.

RSPH’s recent report, Taking a New Line on Drugs, demonstrates there is a clear shift in public sentiment with regard to managing the harms of controlled drug misuse. The public don't think the present strategy is working and are looking for a different approach. 

A representative poll published to coincide with the report launch found more than half (56%) of the UK population agree drug users in their area should be referred to treatment, rather than charged with a criminal offence, with less than a quarter (23%) disagreeing.

Eight years after the Labour Government decided that cannabis should be moved from a class C to a class B drug – against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and in the belief that reclassification would be popular with the public – health professionals have managed to shift the balance of the argument towards a recognition that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is misplaced, and that a health and education based approach, such as that pursued against the mass social harms caused by alcohol and tobacco, might reap greater dividends. 

Recently, leading figures in policing, including Mike Barton, Chief Constable for Durham Constabulary, have also come forward to call for a different strategy. Across the country, a number of police forces have stepped back from arresting people for possession of cannabis for personal use in a bid to focus on more serious harms and also as a pragmatic response to recent budget cuts.

As encouraging is the positive media coverage received by the report, with most press giving it a more than fair wind – in particular, an editorial in The Times offering broad support for the report’s recommendations. Hostility to the suggestion of a health-led approach was generally muted.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Not quite: there is still a rubicon to be crossed. Earlier this week, I attended a European Prison Observatory meeting in Lisbon where criminal justice experts from eight countries discussed how to encourage the European Union and national governments to promote alternatives to the rapidly growing prison population across the continent.

The Portuguese health-led approach, now advocated by the Royal Society, has figured very strongly in Observatory discussions to date, with its focus on diverting drug misusers away from criminal justice and into the health system. I took with me copies of The Times coverage and supportive editorial as some good news from the UK to encourage the others. It did the trick but was quickly trumped by news from Italy.

In July more than 300 Italian parliamentarians will support a bill to legalise the personal use of cannabis. This follows on from government measures to permit cultivation for medical use in January this year. Whether or not the vote is won – there are over 900 members of the Italian parliament – this initiative represents a growing global trend for national legislators to take a hard look at the evidence and rethink the prohibitionist approach.

This is the rubicon that we still have to cross in the UK. Beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who have campaigned diligently on the issue, parliamentarians have been extremely wary of sponsoring bills to either decriminalise or legalise the personal use of cannabis because of the fear that political opponents may take advantage come election time.

Taking a New Line on Drugs and the media response to it, alongside the shift in public opinion, represent a game-changer and takes the public policy debate on to new terrain. It may now be possible that the alliance between the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health, who also supported the report, could become the pivot for a much broader front taking the message to parliamentarians about reducing social harm in society from an evidenced-based perspective, an approach that now has the majority support of their electors.