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Pike, Brigid (2016) What’s in a drugs strategy? Drugnet Ireland, Issue 57, Spring 2016, pp. 10-11.

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While work is proceeding on developing the strategic approach that will be adopted when the current National Drugs Strategy 2009–2016 expires at the end of this year, Drugnet Ireland takes a look at a selection of current drugs strategies from around the world to explore the range of approaches that are being taken to this complex and hydra-headed challenge.1



Many countries have extended the range of their strategies beyond illicit substances to include licit substances.



Alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, methamphetamines and other stimulants, new psychoactive substances, opioids, and misused pharmaceuticals


Drugs and harmful use of alcohol

New Zealand

Alcohol and other drugs


Alcohol, illicit drugs, addictive medications and doping


Addictive substances, whether they be those that are legally traded, such as alcohol, tobacco and certain pharmaceutical drugs, or those excluded from legality


Alcohol, narcotic drugs, doping and tobacco

United Kingdom

Illicit drugs and alcohol dependence

United States

Controlled drugs including prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco


Four countries in the EU have extended their strategic reach further, to include addictive behaviours as well as substances.


Czech Republic

Illicit drugs, alcohol and gambling



Illicit drugs, precursors and new psychoactive substances and doping, licit drugs (alcohol, tobacco, prescription medications), and other addictions (gambling, the Internet)



Illicit drug use, alcohol, tobacco, psychotropic medications and other addictive behaviours such as doping, gambling and gaming



Addictive substances and behaviours, including alcohol, tobacco, prescription drug addiction and prescription drug abuse, pathological gambling, online/media addiction and illegal drugs.


Aspirations and goals


Traditionally, ‘balanced’ drugs strategies have been built around the twin aspirations of reducing supply reduction and demand reduction, with actions grouped under themes such as enforcement, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. The UK Drug Policy Commission, an independent charity that sought to provide objective analysis of the evidence concerning drug policies and practice, suggested that attention should shift at the strategic level from focusing on ‘inputs’ to looking at the desired outcomes:


We suggest making a clear distinction between the overall goals of drug policy and the tools to deliver it. Rather than starting with the traditional distinction between prevention, treatment and enforcement, it may be more effective to consider drug policy in terms of two higher level challenges. (p. 11).2


These two higher-level challenges were characterised as follows:

  • How can society and government enable and support individuals to behave responsibly, i.e. tackle the underlying causes of drug use, providing the information and skills to make sensible choices, and, where drug use does occur, minimise the associated harms
  • How can society and government enable and promote recovery from entrenched drug problems, be it individuals or communities?


Another way of shifting the focus on to outcomes has been tried by New Zealand and Scotland, who have set their national drugs strategies within the framework of broader, over-arching public sector outcomes. In New Zealand, the thinking is that progress towards the twin drug policy goals of minimising harm and promoting and protecting the health and well-being of all New Zealanders will impact on four wider social sector outcomes:

  • reducing welfare dependency,
  • supporting vulnerable children,
  • boosting skills and employment, and
  • reducing crime.1

 The current Scottish drug strategy, launched in 2008, is similarly located within the context of the Scottish government’s ‘overarching purpose, which is to increase sustainable growth’.3 This purpose is supported by a National Performance Framework, which cascades down through five strategic objectives (to make Scotland wealthier & fairer, smarter, healthier, safer & stronger, and greener) and 15 national outcomes to 45 national indicators. One of the 45 indicators is to ‘reduce the estimated number of problem drug users in Scotland by 2011’. The Minister wrote in his Foreword to the drug strategy, ‘Reducing problem drug use will get more people back to work; revitalise some of our most deprived communities; and allow significant public investment to be redirected’(p. iv). 


Principles and values

National drug strategies that adopt a balanced, integrated approach, focusing on reducing both supply and demand (e.g. Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain), tend to include instrumental guiding principles, as does the Australian drugs strategy, which takes a harm- minimisation approach. These instrumental guiding principles include: 

  • long-term and comprehensive planning,
  • realistic decision making – using evidence and evaluation of effectiveness,
  • rational funding and service quality guarantee,
  • partnership and common approach,
  • professional cooperation at system interfaces and networks,
  • reaching people in a local context,
  • taking the most vulnerable, high-risk population groups into account in order to reduce health and social risks and negative impact, including a focus on gender sensibilities, and
  • social participation as a way of raising awareness in society at large. 

‘European values’, i.e. ‘human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity … democracy and the rule of law’,4 are explicitly mentioned in the drugs strategies of several Eastern European countries (Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia). The Croatian and Slovenian drugs strategies also list human rights protection among their guiding principles.


Compassion is highlighted in two national drugs strategies. In New Zealand, compassion is identified together with innovation and proportionality as an essential ingredient if alcohol and other drug problems are to be truly recognised as health issues. In his introduction to the 2015 US National Drug Control Strategy, President Obama wrote that his administration was pursuing a drug policy that is ‘effective, compassionate and just’. He went on to write about erasing the stigma of addiction, ensuring both treatment and a path to recovery, and reforming the criminal justice system to provide alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, substance-involved offenders and improving re-entry programmes.


The need to focus on the individual and their families is highlighted in two national drugs strategies that have adopted a strong value-driven ambition to eradicate drug use from society: 

  • Sweden: The strategy’s overall objective – a society free from illegal drugs and doping, with reduced alcohol-related medical and social harm, and reduced tobacco use – is based on a vision of a society where all may grow up, live and work without risking harm through their own use of alcohol, narcotic drugs, doping substances or tobacco, or through such use by others. As well as the principles of shared responsibility, a long-term perspective and increased coordination and cooperation, the strategy calls for ‘a comprehensive, integrated approach focused on the individual/user and the family’.
  • United Kingdom: The current strategy shifts the focus from harm reduction to recovery. Holistic solutions are to be centred around each individual, with the expectation that full recovery is possible and desirable. The option of decriminalisation is rejected as failing to have regard to the harms that drugs pose to the individual: ‘It neither addresses the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol, nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community (p. 2).’ 


  1. Commentary and documents relating to EU member states with current national drugs strategies, and also Norway and Turkey, were retrieved from the web site of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/countries . Only strategies written in or translated into English, and current in 2016, have been considered. Information on the national drugs strategies of selected non-EU countries were retrieved from the following web sites: New Zealand: http://www.health.govt.nz/publication/national-drug-policy-2015-2020 ; United States: https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/national-drug-control-strategy
  2. UK Drug Policy Commission (2012) A fresh approach to drugs: the final report of the UKDPC. London: UKDPC.
  3. Scottish Government (2008) The road to recovery: a new approach to tackling Scotland's drug problem Edinburgh: The Scottish Government. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2008/05/22161610/0
  4. Preamble to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/fundamental-rights/charter/index_en.htm
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 57, Spring 2016
May 2016
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 57, Spring 2016

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