British MPs were debating drugs policy on Thursday as a Home Office study backed decriminalisation of mood-altering substances.
The New Psychoactive Substances Review, carried out by a panel of experts, concluded that treating drug possession as a health problem rather than a criminal matter has no impact on levels of substance misuse.
The House of Commons was discussing a motion proposed by Green MP Caroline Lucas in the wake of a petition which gathered more than 100,000 signatures.
“This House notes that drug-related harms and the costs to society remain high,” Lucas’s backbench motion said.
“It notes that the independent UK Drugs Policy Commission highlighted the fact that government is spending around Â£3 billion a year on policies that are often counter-productive.”
Despite the review’s findings, the Home Office ruled out the decriminalisation of drugs.
“This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs,” a Home Office spokesman said.
“Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.”
However, crime prevention minister Norman Baker agreed that a new approach is needed to combatting drugs.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the evidence personally is so overwhelming that the present status quo is not tenable.”
Baker, a Liberal Democrat, called for so-called “dissuasion commissions” to be considered, which would divert people arrested over drugs from the criminal system into the health service.
He pointed to evidence from Portugal, insisting that decriminalisation combined with a tough rehabilitation regime had not led to a significant increase in drug use.
“I believe that my (Conservative) coalition colleagues who commissioned the report jointly don’t like the independent conclusions it’s reached,” Baker added.
“What we need to do is recognise that locking somebody up in prison for a matter of weeks because they happen to possess a Class B or a Class C drug is a nonsensical approach. It doesn’t change their attitude.”
The panel warned that an “analogue” anti-drugs legislation, that bans certain drugs, might spark the development of new ones.
“This, in turn, may lead to more harmful substances including illicit drugs or new groups of substances being developed,” they said in their analysis.
They also warned that new drugs controlled by law “may still be in demand and could increase involvement of organised crime groups and displace sales to the internet.”
The panellists proposed instead a general prohibition of psychoactive substances, with exemptions for substances the government wishes to permit, such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, energy drinks.