Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature War on Drugs

Doctors, their leaders, and the drug policy debate

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 14 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6087
  1. Richard Hurley, features and debates editor, The BMJ
  1. rhurley{at}

Despite the odd shout and whisper for reform, most doctors’ professional organisations have little to say about policies such as the criminalisation of people who use drugs. Richard Hurley reports

In June the BMA quietly set policy that moves towards supporting an end to criminal penalties for non-medical drug use. An emergency motion at its Annual Representatives Meeting supported “legislative change so treatment and support are prioritised over criminalisation and punishment of individual drug users.”1

The motion also called for the Department of Health to take over responsibility for drug policy from the Home Office. Proposed by Iain Kennedy, chair of the BMA’s public health medicine committee, it passed with little discussion and received little publicity.

The BMA, which represents some 170 000 UK doctors, had no detail of its plans to share with The BMJ but suggested that because of a lack of political appetite in the government the policy was a longer term goal to be achieved through low key lobbying.

Health problem

In 2013 the BMA’s Board of Science, led by Averil Mansfield, published Drugs of Dependence: The Role of Medical Professionals—a culmination of two years’ work to establish impartial evidence around drug taking, treatment, and policy in the UK, to reframe drug use as a health problem, and most of all to prompt debate.2

In the foreword Mansfield, a former BMA president, wrote, “The present approach is not satisfactory.”

She continued, “The medical profession would never condone drug taking. Individuals who press others into experimenting with the use of drugs may deserve punishment. But those who fall into drug dependence become a medical problem from which we, as a society, cannot escape and they badly need our help.”

Mansfield wants to get all doctors talking about drug use. “I’m a surgeon not an expert on drugs,” …

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