The government should investigate decriminalising the possession of all illegal drugs in a bid to prevent the rising number of related deaths, a group of MPs has said.
The health and social care committee said the level of such deaths in the UK had become a public health “emergency”.
It found the UK’s position on drugs was “clearly failing” and called for a “radical new approach” in policy.
The government said it had no plans to decriminalise drug possession.
There were 2,670 deaths directly attributed to drug misuse in England last year – an increase of 16% from 2017, according to the committee’s report.
However, if other causes of premature death among people who used drugs were included, it is likely the number of deaths would be roughly double this, it found.
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MPs on the committee said they were so concerned by the consequences of the UK’s drugs policy that they had rushed their report out early.
They urged the government to urgently consult on making the possession of drugs for personal use a civil rather than criminal matter – an approach they witnessed in Portugal, where drug death rates have fallen dramatically.
Such a move would “save money” from the criminal justice system and allow for more investment in prevention and treatment, they say.
“Evidence heard throughout this inquiry leads the committee to conclude that UK drugs policy is clearly failing,” the report said.
“The United Kingdom has some of the highest drug death rates in Europe, particularly in Scotland.
“This report shows how the rate of drug-related deaths has risen to the scale of a public health emergency.”
Committee chairman, and Lib Dem MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston said: “Every drug death should be regarded as preventable, and yet across the UK the number of drugs-related deaths continues to rise to the scale of a public health emergency.
“Recommendations put forward in this report propose changes to drugs policy that are desperately needed to prevent thousands of deaths.”
MPs said the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs would not be effective without investing in harm reduction, support and treatment services for addiction.
Responsibility for drugs policy, they argue, should be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.
They also called for a reverse to recent cuts to drug treatment services, as well as “sufficient funding” for alternative approaches, like a pilot of drug consumption rooms – supervised healthcare facilities where users can take drugs in safer conditions.
Dr Emily Finch, vice-chairman of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, backed the committee’s report.
She said: “The increasing number of people needlessly dying from drug addiction shows the government’s approach to treating addictions is failing.
“We emphatically support the report’s calls for urgent investment in drug treatment services and a return to harm reduction.”
A government spokesman said the decriminalisation of drug possession in the UK would not eliminate drugs crime or address harms caused by drug taking.
He added: “We are committed to reducing the use of drugs and the harms they cause, and the Home Office has commissioned a major independent review to examine these issues.
“We must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery, and tackle the supply of illegal drugs.”
Drugs: UK should consider legalising possession, MPs say