Royal commission should be set up to look at UK drug policy, MPs say

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 10 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8403
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. 1BMJ

MPs have called for a royal commission to examine and deal with failings in UK drug policy, in their first report into the issue in a decade.

The Home Affairs Committee has today published detailed findings from a year long inquiry. It supports the direction that the government set out in its 2010 drug strategy1 but calls for additional measures to be implemented to tackle the drugs problem in the United Kingdom.

As a key priority the report identifies the need to “break the cycle” of drug addiction, pinpointing improved treatment in prisons and society as whole, early intervention, and better education and preventive work as key areas to focus on.

The committee said that it was “disturbed” that almost a quarter of prisoners found it easy to get drugs in prison and called for an increase in “regular random drug tests based on suspicion” to combat this.

It expressed concern that drug rehabilitation in prisons was being undermined by “the lack of support for offenders on release” and that the government’s recovery programme failed to take into account addiction to prescribed drugs. The report recommends mandatory drug testing on arrival and release from prison.

MPs welcomed the fall in numbers of heroin and crack cocaine users and the increased numbers undergoing treatment but said that they were concerned that retaining addicts in treatment was hindering attempts at recovery.

The report calls for drug misusers to be offered more flexible tailored treatment plans to suit their recovery needs, and it highlights the relative cost effectiveness of residential rehabilitation and the use of buprenorphine as an alternative to methadone as two currently underused methods of treatment.

Better housing, training, and employment support are identified as prerequisites to promoting better integration of addicts back into society, while the report also urges the government to consider introducing league tables of health and wellbeing boards’ performance on the provision of local drug treatment, to drive improvements in standards.

The committee said that the government should immediately establish a royal commission to consider the best ways of tackling drug misuse, which should be required to report in 2015.

Other advice includes making retailers liable for any harm caused by untested psychoactive substances—or “legal highs”—that they sell; tackling the “alarming increase” in availability of and addiction to prescription drugs; and bringing in new legislation to tackle money laundering by extending personal criminal liability to senior banking officials found to have been involved in illegal practices.

Ministerial responsibility for drugs policy in the UK should be jointly led by the Home Office and Department for Health, it adds, with ministers also mindful to take account of the “global drugs situation.”

Keith Vaz, the committee’s chairman, said, “After a year scrutinising UK drugs policy, it is clear to us that many aspects of it are simply not working and it needs to be fully reviewed. We cannot afford to kick this issue into the long grass.

“Drugs cost thousands of lives and the taxpayer billions of pounds each year. This is a critical ‘now or never’ moment for serious reform. If we do not act now, future generations will be crippled by the social and financial burden of addiction.”

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, said, “If the report is to be responsible, it must take account of the specific damage that cannabis can do to the developing brain, not only as recent studies have shown inducing irreversible cognitive deterioration but in around 10% of cases triggering severe psychotic illness.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8403


  • Read Richard Hurley’s blog on a new film about the failure of the “war on drugs” at