Background to the report

The distribution, sale and consumption of illegal drugs causes significant harm to individuals, families and communities. In 2021, almost 3,000 people in England died because of drug misuse and thousands more suffered complex health problems. The government also estimated that around three million people in England and Wales take illegal drugs at a cost to society of approximately £20 billion a year. The drugs trade generates significant levels of violence and is believed to be responsible for around half of all murders in England and Wales.

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Tackling the problems caused by illegal drugs is complex. It involves disrupting the organised gangs which supply and distribute drugs, and providing effective treatment and recovery services to help people with addictions. The government announced a £900 million increase in funding for 2022-23 to 2024-25 and committed to long-term targets to reduce drug use and drug-related crime and deaths. The government established the cross-government Joint Combating Drugs Unit (JCDU) to co-ordinate and oversee the development and implementation of the strategy.

Scope of the report

It is almost two years since the government introduced its latest drugs strategy and less than 18 months remain in the current funding period to March 2025. This report examines whether the government is well positioned to achieve the strategy’s 10-year ambitions. It covers:

  • the development of the 2021 drugs strategy, its objectives and funding
  • progress in implementing the strategy
  • the approach to achieving the strategy’s long-term outcomes

It is too early to conclude whether the 2021 strategy will reduce the harm from illegal drugs. It will take time for new funding and interventions to address a complex set of issues, and many of the indicators used to measure progress lag behind activity. This report therefore assesses whether departments are making the planned progress in implementing the strategy, and whether the JCDU has an effective approach to understanding the impact it is having and managing the risks to achieving the strategy’s aims. It does not examine the effectiveness of interventions at the local level.


In 2021 the government estimated that the harm caused by illegal drugs costs society £20 billion each year. Its 2021 drugs strategy, led by the cross-government Joint Combating Drugs Unit, has provided new impetus to efforts to address these harms, and committed £900 million to 2024-25.

The strategy has established new partnerships across central and local government, and local authorities are taking steps to rebuild the workforce that was lost over the past decade. But these measures alone will not address all of the barriers to achieving a long-term reduction in drug use, deaths and related crime. The issues are complex and will require a sustained long-term response.

To inform government’s response, the JCDU and relevant departments need to develop a deeper understanding of the impacts of government spending, working closely with local service providers to understand and help address the practical challenges they face. The JCDU and departments need to be realistic about what is achievable in the first three years and assess how to adapt their approach to achieve the strategy’s 10-year outcomes.

In doing so, the JCDU should seek to provide confidence to local government that this is a long-term commitment. It must also urgently develop a plan to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. The current lack of emphasis on preventing illegal drug use means that departments risk only addressing the consequences, rather than the causes, of harm. The government will only achieve value for money if it builds on the initial momentum of the new strategy and develops a longer-term, funded plan that delivers a joined-up, holistic response.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (20 Oct 2023)

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