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A generational shift in the demand for drugs?
What does the 2021 drug strategy say about drug prevention?

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Demand reduction

This is the fourth in a short series of posts looking into the detail of the new drug strategy published earlier this month  and which I summarised here. Today’s post looks at what the document has to say about drug prevention in a chapter entitled: “Achieving a generational shift in the demand for drugs”.

Drugs prevention or demand reduction are typically the most difficult to attain objectives in any drug strategy and many commentators argue that it is not possible for government to control their citizens’ demand for drugs – particularly within a global economy with drugs easily available for purchase in a wide variety of ways. Nonetheless, most governments seem compelled to try and much of the media coverage leading up to the publication of the strategy was about how the government intended to reduce demand for “hard” drugs among middle class users by rescinding passports for those found in possession of Class A substances. Here’s the government’s objective as set out in the strategy:

We will work with experts to encourage people to change their attitudes and behaviour by making sure that drug users are fully aware of the significant risks they are running, including the harms that their use is causing to themselves and others. For those who nevertheless choose to continue with their drug use, there will be swift, certain and meaningful consequences which will be felt more strongly than today and will escalate for those who continue to offend. Drugs are harmful to society and no one is above the law. We will also step up activity aimed at protecting vulnerable children and young people so that they are less likely to start taking drugs.

The strategy breaks demand reduction down into three separate objectives:

  • Building a world-leading evidence base 
  • Reducing the demand for drugs among adults 
  • Preventing the onset of drug use among children and young people

Building an evidence base

The government is commissioning a comprehensive domestic and international research project on reducing drug use across society. It says that the evidence base for preventing drug use among children and young people is more established and intends to focus on risk and resilience factors.

The government also intends to convene a drugs summit in spring 2022 to bring together independent experts, employers and representatives of relevant sectors, including education, law enforcement and the night-time economy, with partners from across government to help to better understand the challenges and potential solutions.

Reducing demand amongst adults

This is the section which generated much of the media with its tabloid-focused language: “The strategy is unashamedly clear on our position: illegal drug use is wrong and unlawful possession of controlled drugs is a crime”.

  • A “bold, new approach” will promote:
  • The introduction or expansion of tough out-of-court disposals.
  • A re-introduction of test on arrest.
  • The piloting of substance misuse problem solving courts.
  • The police will also send messages to discourage drug use to drug dealers’ customers via any seized phones.

The strategy also promises a White Paper (“in due course”) to look at new demand reduction measures: “At this stage nothing is off the table; for repeat offenders we will explore options to change their behaviour via civil sanctions and court orders. This could include, where relevant and proportionate, curfews or the temporary removal of a passport or driving licence, measures that would escalate depending on the severity and frequency of the offences. We will also consider going further than before in fining people who break the law, including consulting on options to increase the level of fines to maximise the deterrent and dissuasion of financial penalties”.

Preventing use by children and young people

The strategy gives details about evaluating current drug education in schools before going on to talk about the Start for Life and Supporting Families programmes designed to support vulnerable families. There is also welcome news about £560m funding in the Youth Investment Fund to try to redress the massive disinvestment in youth services over the last decade.


The government has planned to publish annual progress reports on the implementation of the strategy so that we can judge its impact. In the next post in this series, I will focus on the structures and systems the government intends to use to implement the new strategy.


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