30 October 2014
Last updated at 00:01
There is “no obvious relationship” between tough laws and levels of drug use, a government report has suggested.
It compared the UK with countries like Portugal, where possession of small amounts of drugs no longer carries criminal sanctions.
Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker said the findings should prompt the end of “mindless rhetoric” on drugs with a new focus on treatment.
The report comes as the Home Office launches a clampdown on “legal highs”.
The report explored different ways in which 13 countries approach drug misuse and compared them the UK.
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Let’s look at what works rather than presuming locking people up is the answer”
Home Office minister
After examining a range of approaches, from zero-tolerance to decriminalisation, the research concluded that drug use is influenced by factors “more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone.”
However the report found there had been a “considerable” improvement in the health of drug users in Portugal since the country made drug possession a health issue rather than a criminal one in 2001.
The Home Office said these outcomes cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone and the UK government had “absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs.”
Mr Baker said treating drug use as a health matter would be much more effective in minimising harm.
“Let’s look at what works rather than presuming locking people up is the answer.
“People are treated as a number, they’re given a fine, they’re given a caution, they’re put in prison and none of that changes their drug habit.
“If we’re interested in changing people’s behaviour then we need to look at it from a health point of view,” Mr Baker said.
Earlier this year Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged to abolish prison sentences for the possession of drugs for personal use.
Mr Clegg challenged David Cameron to look at issues such as decriminalisation, despite the prime minister previously rejecting calls for a Royal Commission to consider the issue.
But BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said Mr Baker’s views were at odds with the official Home Office position, which says the current drug strategy is working.
Danny Kushlick, the founder of the group Transform, which has been campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs in the UK for almost 20 years, said the report was an important step.
He added: “For the first time in over 40 years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use.
“Decriminalising the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.”
A separate Home Office report calls for a blanket ban on all brain-altering drugs in a bid to tackle legal highs.
Currently, when a legal high is made illegal, manufacturers are avoiding the law by tweaking the chemical compound and creating a new substance.
The government is going to consider legislation introduced in Ireland four years ago that bans the sale of all “psychoactive” substances but exempts some, such as alcohol and tobacco.
Mr Baker said: “From today we will start looking into the feasibility of a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances across the whole of the UK, clamping down on the suppliers and head shops rather than the users.
“This approach had a dramatic impact on the availability of legal highs when introduced in Ireland, but we must ensure it would work here too.”