What’s the Government doing about drugs?

Drug strategy 2021

On 6th December 2021 the government published a policy paper “From harm to hope: A 10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives” to announce their plan to “cut crime and save lives by reducing the supply and demand for drugs and delivering a high-quality treatment and recovery system”. 

This is the first ever Drugs Strategy that commits the whole of government and our public services to work together and share responsibility for creating a safer, healthier and more productive society

By the end of 2024/25 the government expects their strategy to have:

  • prevented nearly 1,000 deaths, reversing the upward trend in drug deaths for the first time in a decade
  • delivered a phased expansion of treatment capacity with at least 54,500 new high-quality treatment places – an increase of 20% – including:
    • 21,000 new places for opiate and crack users, delivering 53% of opiate and crack users in treatment
    • at least 7,500 more treatment places for people who are either rough sleeping or at immediate risk of rough sleeping – a 33% increase on the current numbers
    • a treatment place for every offender with an addiction
  • contributed to the prevention of three-quarters of a million crimes including 140,000 neighbourhood crimes through the increases in drug treatment
  • closed over 2,000 more county lines through our relentless and robust action to break the model and bring down the gangs running these illegal lines
  • delivered 6,400 major and moderate disruptions – a 20% increase – against activities of organised criminals, including arresting influential suppliers, targeting their finances and dismantling supply chains
  • significantly increase our denial of criminal assets, taking cash, crypto-currency and other assets from the hands of criminals involved in drug trafficking and supply

The plan to achieve the above dictates three strategic priorities for national and local partners:

1. Break drug supply chains – Home Office and Ministry of Justice
The aim being to make the UK a harder place for organised crime groups to operate. The strategy looks to affect every stage of the drugs supply chain:

  • Restricting upstream flow – preventing drugs from reaching the country
  • securing the border – a ring of steel to stop drugs entering the UK
  • targeting the ‘middle market’ – breaking the ability of gangs to supply drugs wholesale to neighbourhood dealers
  • going after the money – disrupting drug gang operations and seizing their cash
  • rolling up county lines – bringing perpetrators to justice, safeguarding and supporting victims, and reducing violence and homicide
  • tackling the retail market – so that the police are better able to target local drug gangs and street dealing
  • restricting the supply of drugs into prisons – technology and skills to improve security and detection

2. Deliver a world-class treatment and recovery system – Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Justice, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Department for Work and Pensions

The government is committing an additional £780 million of funds over three years to deliver a world-class treatment and recovery system in England. Addiction will be destigmatised and viewed as a chronic health condition. The government plan in:

  • Delivering world-class treatment and recovery services – rebuild local authority commissioned substance misuse services, improving quality, capacity and outcomes
  • rebuilding the professional workforce – develop and deliver a comprehensive substance misuse workforce strategy
  • ensuring better integration of services – making sure that people’s physical and mental health needs are addressed to reduce harm and support recovery, and ongoing delivery of Project ADDER to join up treatment, recovery and enforcement
  • improving access to accommodation alongside treatment – access to quality treatment for everyone sleeping rough and better support for accessing and maintaining secure and safe housing
  • improving employment opportunities – employment support rolled-out across England and more peer support linked to Jobcentre Plus services
  • increasing referrals into treatment in the criminal justice system – specialist drug workers to support treatment requirements as part of community sentences so offenders engage in drug treatment
  • keeping prisoners engaged in treatment after release – improved engagement of people before they leave prison and better continuity of care into the community

3. Achieve a generational shift in demand for drugs – Home Office, Department for Education, Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Justice, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities

The government aims to change attitudes in society around the perceived acceptability of illegal drug use with education and being tougher on those in possession of illegal drugs, they plan on:

  • Building a world-leading evidence base
  • applying tougher and more meaningful consequences – decisive action to do more than ever to target more people in possession of illegal drugs and a white paper next year with proposals to go further
  • delivering school-based prevention and early intervention – delivering and evaluating mandatory relationships, sex and health education to improve quality and consistency, including a clear expectation that all pupils will learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol during their time at school
  • supporting young people and families most at risk of substance misuse – investing in a range of programmes that provide early, targeted support, including the Supporting Families Programme

In November 2023 the government announced £267 million to boost local drug and alcohol treatment as part of their 10 year strategy to improve quality and access of drug and alcohol treatment. The funding will be delivered in April 2024 and will help recruit more staff to work with people with drug problems, support prison leavers into treatment and improve the quality of treatment provided. 


From harm to hope: first annual report 2022 to 2023
The first annual report of the drug strategy (published July 2023) sets out the progress from the first year of the government’s 10 year plan.

Drugs: Third Report of Session 2022–23
In this report (published August 2023) the the Home Affairs Committee calls for a new legislative and funding framework that enables practical, risk-reducing interventions and a move away from an abstinence-only approach towards harm reduction.

Reducing the harm from illegal drugs, House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts
The government’s efforts to reduce the harm from illegal drugs are seeing mixed progress, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) finds. While welcoming achievements including drug worker recruitment and disruption to supply, PAC finds less clear progress in reducing drug use and related harms. Particularly concerning is that drug use is rising fastest in younger people as the number of under-18s in treatment has fallen sharply.

Responses to the strategy

The strategy has been largely well received but not exclusively so. There has been criticism that it has failed to endorse some harm reduction measures such as drug consumption rooms. Here is a selection of responses to the strategy.

Collective voice – A joint response to the new Drugs Strategy

“Today’s announcement shows the Government is serious about righting the wrong of nearly a decade of disinvestment in England’s drug treatment system. We are proud to have worked together to consistently call for this change which has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people and their families.”

Release’s take on the Government’s new Drug Strategy

“Investment in improving the quality and capacity of treatment, as recommended in Dame Carol Black’s independent review, is long overdue following the decade of spending cuts to treatment services. The renewed focus on recovery is both welcome yet ironic given that cuts to funding were originally championed by the incumbent Conservative government, as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) noted in 2017. Its impact is also diluted by the strategy’s focus on punishment; a contradiction in terms given that the threat of punishment, and stigmatisation, undermine treatment efforts and prevent people seeking treatment for their drug use, should they want it, in the first place. The strategy proposes to increase punishment for people who supply drugs, and for “lifestyle users” – people who use drugs recreationally – and leaves us in little doubt that we are still in a failed war on drugs.” 

Change Grow Live – We welcome long-term Drug Strategy that signals a new era for treatment

“We welcome the major step forward that this strategy signals for the long-term future of drug treatment and harm reduction. We back the strategy’s acknowledgment that addiction must be treated as a chronic health condition. This is a significant breakthrough for drug treatment and a critical first step in removing the stigma that prevents people from walking through the door of treatment services.”

Pre-strategy announcements and reports

Government response to the independent review of drugs by Dame Carol Black (2021)

Released in late July 2021 the government set out its response to parts 1 and 2 of Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs ( see below).

Commitments include:

  • A new long-term drugs strategy published by the end of 2021 (see above).
  • A national outcomes framework.
  • A “combating drugs delivery board” to oversee the work of the Drugs Unit and to include representation from six key government departments, the Treasury, and No. 10.
  • A new drugs programme which will produce an annual report for Parliament, starting in 2022.
  • A local outcomes framework and a commissioning quality standard drafted “in consultation with the local system”.

Independent review of drugs part two: prevention, treatment, and recovery [Dame Carol Black report, part 2], 2021

This is Part 2 of Dame Carol Black’s independent review for government, setting out a way forward on drug treatment and recovery. Part 1 (below) laid bare the extent of the illicit drugs market in the UK, worth almost £10 billion a year, with 3 million users and a supply chain that has become increasingly violent and exploitative. This is explored further in Part 2, which concludes that the public provision we currently have for prevention, treatment and recovery is not fit for purpose, and urgently needs repair | DHSC, UK

January 2021 – Government announcement on funding: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a £148 million new investment. The new approach, named Project ADDER, gives extra resources to law enforcement to dismantle organised criminal gangs and tackle the supply of drugs. £80 million will also be earmarked for drug treatment and recovery. While the increased funding for treatment has been broadly welcomed it has been seen as too little by many in the field.

Independent Review of drugs, part one: supply and demand [Dame Carol Black report, part 1] (2020) In February 2019, the Home Secretary appointed Professor Dame Carol Black to undertake an independent review of drugs. This was to inform the government’s thinking on what more can be done to tackle the harm that drugs cause. Dame Carol’s response to phase one of the commission provides an analysis of the challenges posed by drug supply and demand, including the ways in which drugs fuel violence.

Smokefree UK by 2030

A report published in June 2021 sets out the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health’s recommendations for the Tobacco Control Plan to deliver a Smokefree UK by 2030. 

This goal has been independently reviewed by Dr Javed Khan OBE in The Khan review: making smoking obsolete (published June 2022). 15 recommendations were made in the review including four ‘critical’ recommendations:

  • Urgently invest £125 million per year in a comprehensive smokefree 2030 programme. Options to fund this include a ‘polluter pays’ levy.
  • Increase the age of sale by one year, every year.
  • Offer vaping as a substitute for smoking, alongside accurate information on the benefits of switching, including to healthcare professionals.
  • For the NHS to prioritise further action to stop people from smoking, by providing support and treatment across all of its services, including primary care.

In April 2023 the government announced a new ‘Swap to stop’ scheme and other measures informed by the recommendations in the Khan review. As part of the scheme 1 in 5 smokers in England will be given a vape starter kit and behavioural support to help them quit. At the same time the government also plans to prevent children and non-smokers from taking up vaping by cracking down on illicit vape sales. 

As another measure, the government will also consult on introducing mandatory cigarette pack inserts with positive messages and information to help people to quit smoking.

Further, the press release also states that all pregnant women who smoke will also be offered financial incentives to give up smoking and behavioural support by the end of the year.

Smokefree generation

In October 2023 the government announced it would be introducing new legislation to create ‘the first smokefree generation’. The proposed legislation would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to children turning 14 this year or younger so they would never be legally sold tobacco products. Anyone who can legally buy cigarettes now would not be prevented from doing so in future but the sale of cigarettes will be phased out over time.

Drug strategy 2017

The drug strategy 2017 set out how the government and its partners, at local, national and international levels, would take new action to tackle drug misuse and the harms it causes.

Here are the government’s stated aims from the strategy which was published on 14th July 2017:

“Our ambition is for fewer people to use drugs in the first place, but for those that do – and who then experience problems – we want to help them to stop and to live a life free from dependence. Our overall aims therefore remain to reduce all illicit and other harmful drug use, and increase the rate of individuals recovering from their dependence. But we want to go further, and achieve our greater ambition both for progress against these aims as well as against a broader set of indicators which reflect the partnership approach that needs to be taken to tackle drug misuse.”

“We will take a leading role in driving international action, spearheading new initiatives e.g. on new psychoactive substances, sharing best practice and promoting an evidence-based approach to preventing drug harms.”

Also published in July 2017 was a review of the 2016 strategy and a review of the Psychoactive Substances Bill:

Drug strategy 2016: development review

A review of the evidence on the 2016 drug strategy by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) | ACMD, UK


Psychoactive Substances Bill: evaluation review

An evaluation review of the Psychoactive Substances Bill by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) | ACMD, UK

Updated February 2024