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2017 Drug Strategy

The complexity and pervasiveness of drug misuse and the harms it causes means that no one can tackle it alone. Government at both national and local levels, international partners, the voluntary and community sector and the public all have a role to play. It is vital that we do this together using a coordinated, partnership-based approach that recognises the common goals we all share – to build a fairer and healthier society, to reduce crime, improve life chances and protect the most vulnerable.

The social and economic cost of drug supply in England and Wales is estimated to be £10.7 billion a year – just over half of which (£6 billion) is attributed to drug-related acquisitive crime (e.g. burglary, robbery, shoplifting). As set out in our Modern Crime Prevention Strategy, drug-related and drug-enabled activities are key drivers of both new and traditional crime: the possession of illicit substances; the crimes committed to fund drug dependence; the production and supply of harmful substances perpetrated by serious and organised criminals alongside drug market violence associated with human trafficking and modern slavery. Drugs can also play a part in facilitating child sexual exploitation and abuse4 and the illicit use of drugs in prisons is a driver of rising violence, self-harm and suicide5.

In 2015-16, around 2.7 million (8.4%) 16-59 year olds in England and Wales reported using a drug in the last year, a proportion which has reduced over the last decade but remained stable over the last seven years.6 The trend is similar for younger people, but the proportion of them taking drugs is higher – 18% of 16-24 year olds in 2015-16.

The picture for use of individual drugs is more varied. Cannabis remains the drug most likely to be used by 16-59 year olds (6.5% of this age group report having used this drug in the past year) and use of cannabis is lower than a decade ago and stable since 2009- 2010. However, estimates of ecstasy use among those aged between 16-24 years have increased and in 2015-2016 they were similar to the level 10 years ago (4.5% in 2015-2016 compared with 4.3% in 2005-2006).

The Government remains vigilant of new and emerging patterns of drug use. While use of new psychoactive substances among the general population is low (0.7% of 16-59 year olds reported having used a new psychoactive substance in 2015-2016), they continue to appear rapidly on the market, and use among certain groups is problematic, particularly among the homeless population and in prisons. In addition, there is emerging use of image and performance enhancing drugs (including intravenous use); and use of multiple drugs (‘poly-substance misuse’) at the same time poses an evolving challenge.

In 2015-16, 203,808 people received treatment for drug misuse. Fewer drug users are coming into treatment and in particular the number of people aged under 25 entering treatment for the first time who use opiates, mainly heroin, has fallen substantially over the course of the last 10 years.

While there are more adults leaving treatment successfully now compared to 2009-107, the rates of success vary by a factor of five between the best and poorest performing local authorities8. In recent years the national rates have also levelled off, with a decline in the proportion of opiate users completing treatment. This decline and local variations in treatment outcomes are likely to be in part because many of those who now remain in treatment for opiate use are older, often have health and mental health problems and entrenched drug dependence. Within the context of these problems, effective partnership working between health and social care, the criminal justice system, housing and employment support is essential to deliver the Strategy’s aims.

Linked to this ageing cohort, we have seen a dramatic and tragic increase in drug misuse deaths since 2012.9 In England and Wales, the number of deaths from drug misuse registered in 2015 increased by 10.3% to 2,479. This follows an increase of 14.9% in the previous year and 19.6% the year before that. Deaths involving heroin, which is involved in around half the deaths, more than doubled from 2012 to 2015.

Drug misuse is common among people with mental health problems: research indicates that up to 70% of people in community substance misuse treatment also experience mental illness and there is a high prevalence of drug use among those with severe and enduring conditions such as schizophrenia and personality disorders. We are clear that reducing the harms caused by drugs needs to be part of a balanced approach. This means
acting at the earliest opportunity to prevent people from starting to use drugs in the first place and prevent escalation to more harmful use, as well as providing evidence-based treatment options that can be tailored to individual need, to provide people with the best chance of recovery. We know that people with co-occurring substance misuse and mental health conditions are too often unable to access the care they need. We want everyone across the country to get the help, treatment and support they need to live a drug-free life and this Strategy sets out how we will seek to tackle this.

So there is much further to go. This Strategy sets out how we and our partners, at local, national and international levels, will take new action to respond to these challenges by:

  • taking a smarter, coordinated partnership approach;
  • enhancing our balanced response across the four core strands of the Strategy (reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery and global action);
  • expanding on the two overarching aims of the 2010 Strategy: to reduce illicit drug use and increase the rate of individuals recovering from their dependence by going further to measure both the frequency and type of drug used, and using recovery data to segment the treatment population, to better personalise support and recovery ambitions;
  • developing a new set of measures to better capture the joint ownership required to drive action across local authorities, health, employment, housing and criminal justice partners; and
  • providing stronger governance for delivering the Strategy, including a Home Secretary chaired Board and the introduction of a national Recovery Champion.