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Govt urged for drug policy reform amid calls for national naloxone programme

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The Home Affairs Committee UK has called upon the government to revise its current drug policy, moving away from the exclusive ‘abstinence only’ approach towards a more practical strategy that highlights harm reduction. The HAC’s recommendations also include the introduction of a national naloxone programme in England, with community pharmacies playing a central role in facilitating access.

The committee published its comprehensive report on August 31, with key recommendations, including the ‘urgent’ reclassification of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic research; a pilot safe consumption facility program (long resisted by the Westminster Government despite Scottish lobbying); and enhanced provision and research on cannabis-based medicinal products (CBPMs).

The report urged the establishment of a national naloxone programme in England, aligning with devolved nations. It also highlighted the role of community pharmacists and peer initiatives for effective distribution and administration. Furthermore, the report emphasises enhanced naloxone distribution for prison leavers. Naloxone is a medication capable of rapidly reversing heroin or methadone overdoses, potentially saving lives.

“In Scotland, pharmacies can provide naloxone kits without a prescription following a decision by the Lord Advocate,” HAC said in its report. “However, in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, we’ve observed that access to naloxone in community pharmacies is inconsistent and restricted. Moreover, when considering a Patient Group Direction, provision is not mandatory and could be contingent on local arrangements.”

“Drugs continue to inflict considerable harm on individuals and society,” said Dame Diana Johnson MP, Chair of HAC. “The government’s response must effectively address the multifaceted harms that drugs can engender. While the drug strategy is heading in a positive direction, it demands more substantial efforts to effectively combat the diverse array of drug-related issues.”

“The criminal justice system must persist in dismantling the criminal gangs propelling the illicit drug trade,” the MP added. “Yet, it must also acknowledge that numerous children and young individuals involved require support to escape, rather than facing punishment for their participation.”

Meanwhile, UK pharmacists can now administer life-saving naloxone as part of the government’s strategy to combat drug-related deaths. A recent consultation, initiated on Aug. 3, modified existing regulations and broadened access to naloxone, allowing police officers, prison staff, paramedics, and pharmacists to supply and administer it to counter opioid overdoses.

£5 million fund to tackle drug deaths

The government recently allocated £5 million to support projects, including the development of AI technology for detecting overdoses and antidote-dispensing drones, that have the potential to save lives among individuals at risk of drug-related fatalities. This initiative is also being delivered in partnership with the Scottish Government as part of their National Mission on Drugs.

“As part of the Reducing Drug Deaths Innovation Challenge, aimed at lowering drug-related fatalities across the UK, the Office for Life Sciences is investing in 12 promising projects,” the Department of Health and Social Care said on Aug. 29. “These initiatives aim to develop technologies for better detection, response, or intervention in potential drug-related deaths.”

“Drug use has a devastating impact on people’s health, their families, and their livelihoods, and every year over 4,000 people in the UK die from an avoidable drug overdose,” said Will Quince, Minister of State for Health. “This fund forms part of our healthcare mission programme as we take a Vaccine Taskforce-style approach to some of the biggest challenges facing our society today, backed by over £200 million.”

Eleven projects received grants of up to £100,000 each for 4-month feasibility studies, aiming to develop prototypes. An extra project secured up to £500,000 for a year-long demonstration study gathering real-world evidence with homeless accommodation residents. The studies are set to commence this month.

Feasibility studies yielding promising outcomes can apply for grants of up to £500,000 for 12-month follow-on demonstration projects. These projects, commencing in May 2024, will assess and compile real-world evidence of their technology’s effectiveness among population groups most vulnerable to overdose.

The winning projects will operate across the four UK nations, featuring AI overdose detection, drone-delivered antidotes, and wearable tech like smartwatches or breath monitors to detect overdoses, alerting healthcare professionals, family, or community members to intervene, the DHSC added.

Life-saving app launched

In a first for England, the Carry Naloxone mapping app was launched in Somerset, aiding individuals in locating places for free drug overuse treatment. The app includes a directory of venues, like local pharmacies and needle exchanges, and provides guidance on recognising overdose symptoms and administering treatment via nasal or needle delivery.

The app is a component of a pilot initiative that includes a complimentary home-delivery service for the medication. Social care organisation Turning Point’s Somerset Drug and Alcohol Service, commissioned by Somerset Council, will deliver Naloxone kits to individuals who believe they could require them.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has recently issued a policy statement with 14 recommendations, advocating close collaboration with the Scottish government to uphold the continued decrease in drug-related deaths. It’s worth noting that drug-related fatalities in Scotland reached their lowest point last year since 2017.

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