Taking a New Line on Drugs assesses the situation in the UK as regards rising health harm from illegal drugs, with reference to their context within the wider ‘drugscape’ of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, and sets out a new vision for a holistic public health-led approach to drugs policy at a UK-wide level.

From a public health perspective, the purpose of a good drugs strategy should be to improve and protect the public’s health and wellbeing by preventing and reducing the harm linked to substance use, whilst also balancing any potential medicinal benefits.

RSPH is calling for the UK to consider exploring, trialling and testing such an approach, rather than one reliant on the criminal justice system.

Key recommendations

  • Transferring lead responsibility for UK illegal drugs strategy to the Department of Health, and more closely aligning this with alcohol and tobacco strategies.
  • Preventing drug harm through universal Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education in UK schools, with evidence-based drugs education as a mandatory, key component.
  • Creating evidence-based drug harm profiles to supplant the existing classification system in informing drug strategy, enforcement priorities, and public health messaging.
  • Decriminalising personal use and possession of all illegal drugs, and diverting those whose use is problematic into appropriate support and treatment services instead, recognising that criminalising users most often only opens up the risk of further harm to health and wellbeing. Dealers, suppliers and importers of illegal substances would still be actively pursued and prosecuted, while evidence relating to any potential benefits or harm from legal, regulated supply should be kept under review.
  • Tapping into the potential of the wider public health workforce to support individuals to reduce and recover from drug harm.

Harm reduction

Our policy paper, 'Drug safety testing at festivals and night clubs' (June 2017) looks at how health harm related to drug use, particularly from stimulant ‘club drugs’ such as ecstasy, can be minimised in these specific environments. Key points include:

  • Deaths related to ecstasy use in England and Wales have risen from 10 in 2010 to 57 in 2015, with deaths related to any drug at festivals also increasing to six at UK festivals in 2016
  • Drug safety testing pilots at two UK festivals in 2016 saw almost one in five users (18%) dispose of their drugs once aware of the content
  • RSPH supports the roll out of drug safety testing facilities as standard in the UK across all festivals, city centre nightlife areas in the UK and as a client service at drug treatment services

Demand drug policy reform


UK drugs policy 

We went to Liverpool to find out what people thought about existing drugs policy, and challenged them to guess which anonymous substance should be legal, illegal, prescribed or made available on legal premises or pharmacies.