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UK drugs policy going backwards, former chief adviser claims

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

The UK's policy on drugs has "done nothing but go backwards" in the last decade, one of the Government's former chief advisers has claimed.

Speaking 10 years to the day after he was sacked from his role as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt told an audience the country was now "worse off".

He added the Misuse of Drugs Act was "failing in its legal duty".

Prof Nutt was dismissed from his post in October 2009 by then-home secretary Alan Johnson after he criticised policy, saying ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes.

Five other members of the panel resigned in the wake of the row and Prof Nutt has now set up a rival group, DrugScience.

The talk at King's College in London on Wednesday night followed calls by MPs for the decriminalisation of drugs in a bid to curb the rise in deaths.

There were 2,670 deaths directly attributed to drugs misuse in England last year, an increase of 16% since 2017.

During the talk - which was briefly interrupted with an evacuation that staff said was due to "cement dust" triggering the smoke alarms - Prof Nutt said he "fought back" after his dismissal and decided to continue analyse drugs.

But he claimed there had been a "litany of failure" by UK Governments, including the use of spice growing in prisons and the number of deaths in men under the age of 50 due to alcohol on the rise.

He said the number of deaths among women due to alcohol was also beginning to rise, claiming many were drinking more as they were "earning more and are liberated".

Research carried out in 2010 showed alcohol was the "most harmful drug in the UK" and Prof Nutt said this still stands and "very little has changed now".

He warned it was "very likely" the UK will soon endure a rise in deaths from fentanyl - the powerful opioid used as pain medication which is sometimes mixed with other drugs like ecstasy or sold instead of this by dealers.

A report on the Health and Social Care Committee's inquiry published last week - to which Prof Nutt gave evidence - found the country's position on drugs was "clearly failing" and called for a "radical new approach".

It said drug possession for personal use should be a civil matter not a crime and any policy should focus on healthcare, not prosecution.

Decriminalisation "would be a good start", Prof Nutt said, as he called for the drugs testing, "safe injection rooms" and a "mass rollout of naloxone to "thwart the expansion of fentanyl".

His recommendations, which echoed those made by the committee, also included shifting the responsibility for drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care.

He pointed to pledges by the Liberal Democrats and the Green party to make recreational drugs legal and said the "other two major parties" need to "grow up" and talk seriously about drugs.

Last week, the Government said it "has no plans to decriminalise drug possession", saying this "would not eliminate the crime" or address the harms.

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