Despite the odd shout and whisper for reform, most doctors’ professional organisations have little to say about policies such as the criminalisation of people who use drugs.

15 Nov 2016

In June 2016 the BMA quietly set policy that moves towards supporting an end to criminal penalties for non-medical drug use. An emergency motion at its Annual Representatives Meeting supported “legislative change so treatment and support are prioritised over criminalisation and punishment of individual drug users.”

In 2013 the BMA’s Board of Science, led by Averil Mansfield, published Drugs of Dependence: The Role of Medical Professionals—a culmination of two years’ work to establish impartial evidence around drug taking, treatment, and policy in the UK, to reframe drug use as a health problem, and most of all to prompt debate.

 Debate (1)

In the foreword Mansfield, a former BMA president and current board member of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies wrote, “The present approach is not satisfactory.”

Mansfield wants to get all doctors talking about drug use. “I’m a surgeon not an expert on drugs,” she told The BMJ, “but as a caring and compassionate profession this is something that we ought to have much more interest in.” 

John Middleton, chair of the Faculty of Public Health, agreed: “We got a lot of support for the report. We didn’t get any negative feedback from the royal colleges. There’s a broad degree of acceptance, and they see that the tough on drugs approach is not working, as we’re now seeing with the rise in drug related deaths.”

Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and board member of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies, was more direct. “Drug policy is a complete disaster,” she said, “and it’s within doctors’ remit when it’s killing people,” 

Chris Beyrer, professor of public health and human rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, head of the International Aids Society and Patron of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies said “Mobilising physicians has been a challenge…….” “They don’t necessarily want to engage with the political but want to stick to our tract—that is, clinical care. That is a challenge when you have policy so clearly harmful to health—for example, the criminalisation of petty use and possession.

 International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies has seen a definite shift in this position with nearly 1500 members from over 100 countries having joined the organisation over the last 2-3 years. 

Click here to read the full BMJ feature 

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