Drug policy reforms such as decriminalisation, prevention, and treatment programmes could prevent 1,600 drug-related deaths and reduce inequalities across the North and Scotland, and a think tank analysis shows.
The Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think tank, has warned against leaving drug policy reform out of Government plans for levelling up because intervention could level up economic and health outcomes in the most deprived regions of the UK.
SMF analysis shows a clear link between deprivation and drug misuse. Not only is there a north-south divide, but regions recognised as in need of levelling up – the North East, the North West, and Yorkshire – have higher overdose death rates than more affluent regions such as London, the East, and South East.
People living in the most deprived parts of Scotland are 18 times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those living in the least deprived areas of the country.
The SMF has produced estimates of how many lives could be saved if an 80% decline in deaths could be achieved in UK regions, as was observed in Portugal following drugs policy reform.
An 80% decline in the death rate in the North East would mean 600 lives saved each year; in Scotland, an 80% decline would mean 1,000 lives saved each year.
In a paper out today, co-written with Jay Jackson (Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Volteface), the SMF is calling on Government to explore options for comprehensive policy reforms that treat drug misuse directly – through safe spaces, diversion away from punishment and towards treatment – and indirectly, such as through local housing policies that specifically address the complex needs of people who use drugs.
Currently, the government does not have the plan to break the drugs-deprivation link, despite evidence suggesting that lowering deprivation would reduce drug misuse and vice versa.
The Government’s 10-year plan to reduce drug-related crime and death does not acknowledge the role of poverty and regional inequality, and the Levelling Up White Paper does not mention drugs.
Beyond reducing health inequalities, helping people overcome problematic drug use reduce the costs to the taxpayer.
In 2017–2018 alone, almost three-quarters (70%) of the costs of supporting unemployed drug users were due to 300,000 opioid and/or crack cocaine users. According to this, each user who gains employment saves the taxpayer £9,000+.
The SMF paper highlighted successes from international reforms, like in Portugal, where overdose deaths decreased by 80% after decriminalisation and related measures. Replicating measures such as prevention and education; providing access to evidence-based, voluntary treatment programs; adopting harm reduction practices could lead to saved lives across the country, especially in the most deprived regions such as North East and Scotland.
Jake Shepherd, the senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, said: ‘The relationship between drugs misuse and deprivation is complex; a vicious cycle harms many more lives in the poorest regions of the nation. If ministers want to level up the country, they should be working to break the link between drugs and deprivation.’
‘The current policy stance on drugs needs to shift towards one that prioritises support, treatment, and education – so that we can reduce health and economic inequalities between the north and south, and between poor and rich.’
Jay Jackson, head of Policy and Public Affairs at Volteface, said: ‘The most harmful and costly examples of drug misuse are almost always the result of deprivation and disadvantage. This report demonstrates just how clear this link is, how urgently it needs to be addressed, and how much the individuals concerned and society as a whole stand to benefit from doing so.’
‘If levelling up is to mean anything, then it must level down drug deaths. Treatment, education, and wraparound support are crucial to ending the drug death epidemic plaguing our left-behind communities. Several evidence-based drug policy solutions could be transformative for the lives of those suffering from serious substance misuse and the communities they inhabit.’