DDN’s occasional column offering a chance to hear opposing views on vital issues

‘Now is not the right time to decriminalise drugs’.

PROPOSER: Dr Neil McKeganey, 

founder, Centre for Drugs Misuse Research, Scotland

We’re not discussing decriminalisation, we’re discussing the timing. Humans have an unquestionable desire for any drugs. Why is criminal law involved in this area? It’s society’s attempt to limit the scale.

The impact of treatment on dependency is modest. You can exhort people to give up drug use – and you can keep them alive until they decide to do it for themselves. Some believe that the best that prevention can do is delay the onset of drug use. That’s why there are criminal justice barriers – to reduce to a minimum the drug use in society.

We know informally that the policy of decriminalisation is being pursued in the UK; cannabis is dealt with in a ‘softly softly’ way, and I think this is preferable. But there is no need for a grandiose statement and the biggest change in drug laws in 50 years. There’s a downward spiral in drug use – the latest British Crime Survey shows the biggest drop since we started recording data.

But the biggest point in favour of the motion is the changing nature of drug use in the UK. The continuing escalating curve of heroin use is not being borne out and we’re also seeing a reduction in people contacting drug treatment services. So the actual profile of the drug using population is changing.

It’s not all rosy in the garden of drug use statistics – there’s a continuing propensity to use psychoactive substances. But we’re seeing the most dramatic reduction in people using drugs. Now is not the time to look at decriminalisation – there’s a risk of reversing the overall downward trend we’re now witnessing.  

It’s arrogant to say it’s just a public health issue. I find it staggering that you think there is no role for criminal justice to play.


SECONDER: Humphrey Narebor, DATUS

The criminal justice system helped me on my path to abstinence. When I heard there was a debate going on, I thought I have to dissuade you from this crazy line of thinking. 

Decriminalisation will increase drug use or sustain it among current users. Drugs, legal or otherwise don’t work – say no to decriminalisation.


Opposed by: Steve Rolles, 

senior policy analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

We’re criminalising certain risk-taking behaviour in a way that’s arbitrary. There are about 6m people in the UK who are criminalised by the law as it stands. Very few people go to prison for possession in the UK – but they do globally, and it creates a criminal record.

There’s a lack of research into the deterrent effect of decriminalisation. Neil noted that we’re adopting a less punitive approach – this undermines his argument. Punishment is at the heart of the paradigm – but there’s not much evidence for its effect. And in moving to decriminalisation, there’s no link with increase of use.

There’s enormous variety in the way different countries have adopted this – but not an explosion of use. It’s been endorsed by a surprising array of organisations including the Red Cross – not marginal groups.

Criminalisation creates key harms. It pushes use into unhygienic high-risk environments. It leads to people who use drugs ending up in prison. It’s uneth­ical from a public health perspective – you’re harming people you want to serve.

Criminalisation is intended to stigmatise use. It has led to discrimination against people who use drugs and deters them from seeking help. It negatively impacts life opportunity and access to housing and employment.

To not question the system is to allow harms to continue. It’s unethical. It makes you complicit in the harms it creates. 

Historically, drug policies have been framed in the criminal justice element. It’s about reversing the balance so it’s predominantly health.


Seconded by: Rueben Ambler, DATUS

I’m not in favour of drugs, but in favour of minimising their effects. Decriminalisation is overdue in this country. In Portugal, the taxpayers’ money has been spent on treatment. People sometimes produce statistics that show the increase in drug use after decriminalisation – but this was already happening. 

I hid my drug use from my family and friends, so I didn’t get the help I need­ed. When I overdosed, my friends dumped me outside in the snow be­cause they were afraid of the police. It wouldn’t have happened with decriminalisation.


This debate was held at the RCGP primary care conference in Birmingham last month. The motion was carried by 70 per cent of the audience to 30 per cent.