Drug reform was put back on the agenda today after a report by two major public health organisations called for the personal use and possession of all illegal drugs to be decriminalised.
The study by the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health criticised the government's drug policies and said the tendency to view legal and illegal drugs differently had "failed on many levels", criminalising and stigmatising a "significant portion of the population" in the process.
The authors argued drug use and enforcement can also have significant consequences at population level, "placing strain on health and criminal justice systems and incurring huge social and economic costs".
According to the study, Class A drug misuse, which primarily involves heroin and crack cocaine, costs society an estimated £15.4bn a year in England and Wales, which is predominantly accounted for by social and economic costs associated with drug-related crime (at £13.6bn in 2003/4).
Drug arrests and drug-related mortality and morbidity to the NHS make up the remaining economic costs.
The research also cited the example of Portugal, which decriminalised drugs 15 years ago, as evidence that economic, as well as social benefits from
"For society, the positive impact can be felt at the economic level — research from Portugal, where drugs were decriminalised in 2001, found that in 11 years of decriminalisation there had been an 18 per cent saving in social costs linked to indirect health costs, including reductions in drug related deaths, and direct costs associated with the legal system," Niamh Eastwood, executive director of charity Release told City A.M.
"The reality is that decriminalisation can save the state money by reducing police, prosecutors and judges’ time dealing with people caught in possession of drugs, can saves lives and lead to a healthier, more inclusive society."
The Liberal Democrats, the only major party to actively campaign for the decriminalisation of cannabis and more progressive drug policies, welcomed the report.
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Former health minister and now Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Norman Lamb, said: "The Liberal Democrats support the view that personal drug use should not be criminalised. Drug policy should focus on reducing harms from any drugs, legal or illegal, and this can be best achieved by focusing on diverting people from the criminal justice system.
"Continuing to criminalise drug users, blighting the futures of thousands of young people, is deeply flawed and has caused enormous harm."
Previous research from the party showed that legalising cannabis could raise an extra £1bn in tax for the Treasury annually.