Tough drug laws have no impact on their use, says Government study

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Drug use is not affected by the “toughness” of a country’s enforcement on possession of substances, an official Government study has found.

In a move likely to stoke tensions within the coalition Government, the Home Office report says treating drug possession as a health problem rather than a criminal matter has no impact on levels of substance misuse.

The Government is to also monitor results in Uruguay and some US states that have recently legalised possession of cannabis, the report says.

David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have previously clashed over Britain’s war on drugs, with Mr Clegg challenging the Prime Minister to look at decriminalisation or legalisation of possession.

Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “This is a historic moment in the development of UK drug policy.

“For the first time in over 40 years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use. It has also acknowledged that decriminalising the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.”

Ministers are expected to unveil proposals for a blanket ban on all brain-altering drugs in a bid to tackle an epidemic of so-called legal highs.

The Government is to look at legislation introduced in Ireland four years ago that bans the sale of all ‘’psychoactive’’ substances and then exempts some, such as alcohol and tobacco.

In an international comparators study, the Home Office looked at different approaches to drugs policy and treatment in a number of countries, including some that have harsh criminal sanctions for users and some that have effectively decriminalised possession of drugs.

The study found no evidence that levels of drug use were affected by how “tough” or “soft” a government’s response is, suggesting criminal sanctions have little impact.

The report also found positive health outcomes in Portugal, where possession of drugs is treated as a health matter rather a criminal issue, and no increase in use.

Worse health outcomes were found in the Czech Republic after drug possession was criminalised, while no evidence of lower use was discovered.

The report is likely to add to calls from Liberal Democrats to scrap jail terms for possession of drugs for personal use.

The Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year pledged to abolish prison sentences for the possession of drugs for personal use - including Class A substances like heroin and cocaine.

Mr Clegg has challenged David Cameron to look at issues such as decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, despite the Prime Minister previously rejecting calls for a Royal Commission to consider the contentious issue.

A Home Office spokesman said: “This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs. Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.

“It is right that we look at drugs policies in other countries and today’s report summarises a number of these international approaches.”

A separate report calls for a blanket ban on supply of so-called legal highs.

Currently, when a legal high is outlawed, illegal-drug chemists are getting around the law by tweaking the chemical compound and creating a new substance.

Home Office officials are to launch a feasibility study looking at the Irish model, which has effectively eliminated all so-called head shops that sell legal highs.

Crime prevention minister Norman Baker said: “From today we will start looking into the feasibility of a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances across the whole of the UK, clamping down on the suppliers and head shops rather than the users.

“This approach had a dramatic impact on the availability of ‘legal’ highs when introduced in Ireland, but we must ensure it would work here too.”

Recently released figures showed there were 60 deaths related to legal highs in 2013 - up from 52 in 2012 and 29 in 2011.