The UK and Ireland both released their own drug strategies in the last few weeks and it seems as if we’ve reached a fabled position of a ‘tale of two cities’. Regional and national drug strategies are continue to become increasingly varied, but what can we learn from two opposite examples?

The UK government came under heavy criticism for their ‘new’ 2017 Drug Strategy which many believe is a continuation of failed and dangerous policies. In England and Wales, 2015 saw the number of deaths from drug misuse increase by 10.3 per cent to 2,479. Deaths involving heroin, which is involved in around half the deaths, more than doubled from 2012 to 2015.

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‘The social and economic cost of drug supply in England and Wales is estimated to be £10.7 billion a year – just over half of which (£6 billion) is attributed to drug-related acquisitive crime (e.g. burglary, robbery, shoplifting).’

The many critics point out that there is very little that can be classed as ‘new’ in the latest drug strategy. Following the release of the document a debate was held in the House of Commons where MPs from all sides of the house added their comments over the course of a six hour session. The mood mainly reflected the frustration that many feel towards the UK’s anchored drug policy in terms of ‘prevention’ and ‘enforcement’.

One MP hit the headlines for his comments regarding medicinal cannabis, an issue that was not raised in the UK drug strategy despite receiving a lot of attention across the rest of the world. Paul Flynn MP relayed his own experience in meeting with campaigner Clare Hodges, also known as Elizabeth Brice, a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferer who used cannabis to help alleviate her symptoms. He was very open about the content of these meetings, with talk of cannabis consumption taking place within parliament. Paul went on to use this particular example as a call for civil disobedience from those who suffer with serious conditions that find cannabis helps in their day to day lives. 

In contrast, Ireland is moving ahead with pace regarding their own drug strategies. Medicinal cannabis use is very much on the agenda for specific conditions with the Irish Health Minister, Simon Harris. He has said that he would support the use of medical cannabis where patients have not responded to other treatments and acknowledged evidence that cannabis may be effective. 

In the release of Ireland’s new drug strategy, the narrative is distinctly different from the prevention and law enforcement reliance of the UK. The Irish drug strategy, launched by the Taoiseach, says:

‘Treating substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue, helps individuals, helps families, and helps communities. It reduces crime because it rebuilds lives. So it helps all of us.’

Ireland passed legislation on Safe Injection Facilities (SIFs) which enables drug users access sterile equipment and environments that provide physical and emotional support. Advice and services are on offer within these facilities, and in turn this has wider benefits to society. It means drug paraphilia and litter on the street is often eradicated because SIFs are accessible. Overdose deaths have increased in Ireland from 301 in 2005 to 354 in 2014, representing an increase of 17.6 per cent.  which this is why they are changing their attitudes towards drug use and look to frame the issue in terms of public health.

Within the UK’s debate, the lack of a national dialogue around Safe Injection Facilities was more than highlighted. Caroline Lucas MP made the case that,

“Drug consumption rooms allow us to reach people who would otherwise be very hard to reach… and build up trust and bring them into recovery.”

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There has also been a growing conversation around decriminalisation of drug possession, something Ireland’s latest drug strategy aligns with, fitting within the frame of health and support over a punitive model. This is once more in contrast to the UK’s reliance on an enforcement model. Within Ireland’s strategy, it states:

‘Establishment of a Working Group to consider approaches to possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use and to report back in 12 months’

Ireland is also forging ahead with the recruitment of Drug Liaison Midwives, Clinical Nurse Specialists and Young Person’s counsellors. Their focus on health is quite clear.

The UK’s drug strategy does not include such health-based measures, and critics made their feelings known. Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, commented in the parliamentary debate:

“We criminalise people with mental health problems. We know that there is massive comorbidity: if people are suffering from mental ill health—depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder—they may well end up taking drugs as an escape from the pain that they are suffering, and then we prosecute them and give them a criminal record.”

Many UK MPs have been left frustrated with the UK Home Office’s strategy. Ronnie Cowan, MP for Inverclyde, said that the UK Government’s report failed to address crucial core issues:

“Drugs are not the problem. We should be asking: why do people take drugs and why do some 10% of users develop an addiction? What leads people to abuse drugs? That is the issue. If Ministers think that coming down hard on criminals will remove drugs from society and therefore end the need for them, they are delusional. We have been trying that for years, and the situation has only got worse.”

The differences between the UK and Ireland’s drug strategies are now quite defined. The debate on drug policy will play out as the two very different strategies run concurrently over the coming years, producing evidence as they pan out. And we cannot forget that actual lives are at stake; this is far from a theoretical debate. 

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