Drug users must be treated as “patients first,” says BMA

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 15 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f306
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. 1BMJ

Drug policy in the United Kingdom should focus more on health to help reduce the negative effects of illegal drug use, says the BMA.

The new report from the BMA’s Board of Science says that the association was seeking to “open and refocus the debate on drug treatment and drug policy through the eyes of the medical profession,” amid concerns that health could be sidelined in the current debate on drug use.

The report, Drugs of Dependence: The Role of Medical Professionals,1 acknowledges that the UK’s drug policies now show a greater sensitivity to social and economic factors than in the past but says that the focus on health remained “inadequate,” warning that some users may be discouraged from seeking help because of a fear that they will be treated as criminals.

The report comes in the same week that a cross party group of peers called for a radical change in approach to tackling drug use, with all illegal drugs being decriminalised.2

The BMA’s report, produced with the help of an expert reference group of specialists, examines the legal framework underpinning the current strategies and assesses the role that doctors and other medical professionals have in tackling drug misuse.

It says that people who are addicted to illegal drugs have a medical condition that should be treated like any other illness, and it adds that doctors should help to refocus the debate to ensure that it is based on public health principles and results in “better health outcomes for all illicit drug users.”

Medical training should incorporate basic knowledge of the “social and personal factors increasing the risks of illicit drug use,” its adverse health consequences, and the role of doctors in identifying drug related harm and initiating interventions, the report adds.

Doctors are also urged to maintain awareness of “the non-medical facets of drug use” and to “exercise caution in prescribing drugs with the potential for non-medical use.”

Averil Mansfield, chairwoman of the Board of Science, said, “The BMA believes that drug users are patients first. That’s why we want health to be at the heart of the debate about drugs policy. We fear that too great a focus on criminalisation is deterring drug users from seeking medical help.

“While the medical profession would never condone illegal drug taking, we believe that we should show understanding of the illness of drug addiction and respond in the way that we would with any other medical problem.”

The House of Lords report, produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, recommended a system of “regulated supply” for the new “legal highs” and for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs.

The peers’ report said that criminal sanctions had proved to be ineffective in combating drug addiction and concluded that a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was now needed.

Last month MPs on the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee called for a royal commission to examine and deal with failings in UK drug policy,3 but the prime minister rejected the advice, insisting that the government’s current approach to tackling drugs was working.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f306