Drug deaths in England and Wales are at a record high, while figures in Scotland are the worst in Europe. In many parts of the world, drug policy is shifting, with some states in the US moving to decriminalise certain banned substances, and some European nations adopting so-called ‘harm reduction’ approaches to tackling the threat of substance abuse to both individuals and society.
Now, new YouGov data sheds some light on Britain’s thoughts on how they believe the government should be tackling substance abuse in the UK.
The public do not believe the government’s approach to tackling the harms inflicted by drugs is working
Many Britons either have or have had an addiction problem themselves (7%), or have a friend (10%) or family member (11%) with an addiction problem. According to the latest government statistics 276,000 people in the UK sought help from state run addiction services between April 2020 and March 2021.
However, it seems that many Britons don’t feel these services are up to scratch. The public are highly critical of the current government’s approach to reducing the impact of drugs upon society and people who use drugs. Two thirds of Britons (66%) believe the government currently does too little to tackle addiction issues in the UK, with a similar proportion believing that current policy does a bad job of minimising the harm of drugs to people who use them (65%) and society (64%).
Labour voters are especially critical, with 76% believing that the government does not do enough to help tackle addiction issues in the UK, and 70% responding that the government is doing a bad job of reducing drug-related harm to society in general.
Britons are not in favour of criminalising people who use drugs, and want to make drug consumption safer…
The government recently published a ten year plan to tackle drug harms, however, unlike some other countries around the world, the new plan continues to impose criminal penalties upon people who use drugs. YouGov put the principle of ‘harm reduction’ approaches to Britons to see what they think of this alternative approach.
Overall, Britons disagree with the current approach of criminalising people who use drugs. Asked whether people with addictions should be treated as criminals or as mentally ill – as is the case in Portugal and some other countries – a plurality of Britons (49%) say the latter. Only one in five (19%) instead believe criminalisation is the right approach, with a further 19% endorsing neither approach
In this vein, to tackle soaring overdose and HIV rates amongst people who use drugs – particularly those who inject them – some countries have opened supervised drug consumption rooms. These are facilities where people who use drugs are supervised while consuming drugs in case of overdose, and are also provided with access to safe injecting equipment and sharps bins for safe disposal. Britons are overall supportive of the government introducing such facilities: a majority (55%) back their establishment, whilst only a quarter oppose the idea (25%). Seven in ten Labour voters support the idea, with Conservatives also tending to support by 47% to 36%.
…but relatively few support decriminalising drugs
Another major harm reduction initiative adopted in some European countries is the decriminalization of drugs. Most notably, in an attempt to tackle their soaring overdose and HIV rates, in 2001, Portugal opted to de-criminalise all drugs. This in practice meant that drugs were not legalised, but that those caught in possession of them were referred for treatment for addiction and mental health issues in place of custodial sentencing or fines.
Overall, few Britons want to see drugs decriminalized, with a majority of Britons – ranging from 53% through to 78% – opposing the decriminalization of the individual banned substances we asked about.
When it comes to looking at support by each individual substance, support is clearly highest for marijuana (45%), with the next highest support figure being for ‘magic mushrooms’ (28%). Despite the Labour party not backing the decriminalization of marijuana, a majority of 2019 Labour voters would support the move (57%), compared to a third of Conservative voters (33%).
Support for the decriminalization of ‘harder drugs’, such as heroin and cocaine however is extremely low, at 11% and 15% respectively.
To understand what motivates support for the continued criminalisation of substances, we asked those who opposed the decriminalization of any named substance what underlies their opposition. Analysis of these verbatim responses unearthed several key themes.
By far the most popular reason was a belief that certain illegal substances pose more harm to users than legal ones, with 30% responding with something to this effect.
‘Because they’re banned for good reason’
‘Because all the substances are very harmful and should not be legal as part of a civilised society. This gives the impression it is okay to use mind altering drugs when that is absolutely not the case.’
‘Certain substances can cause long term mental and physical damage compared to other substances’
One in ten (10%) felt that ‘all drugs are dangerous’, with some comments explicitly mentioning alcohol and tobacco…
‘Because no drugs should be legal’
‘Drugs should not be legal, there are no good points to taking them’
‘Alcohol and tobacco cause serious issues already…’
Some were also concerned about the impact of decriminalization on wider society (9%), often containing references to the possible additional burden decriminalization may have on society as a whole, including placing strain on public services…
‘Because they are a drain on the public purse in creating dependents who require treatment...’
‘Because of the harm they do to the users, society in general and to all those who are part of the supply chain.’
‘Damage they do to the user and society as a whole plus the cost to the NHS’
This concern about the impact on wider society may have come from the sentiment that decriminalization would normalise the use of drugs (5%) and lead to an increase in use (8%), and the rate of addiction (8%), as well as the rate of drug related crime (8%).
‘This would make them seem acceptable and lead to more addicts…’
‘Decriminalization may legitimise the use of [drugs] in some people’s minds and encourage experimentation’
‘Some lead to crime in order to fund addiction.’
See full results here