Since the 1960s, the British system of drug control has evolved and changed in many important ways. Although the heroin problem expanded dramatically in the 1980s, the major policy decisions of the Rolleston Report have continued to govern the British approach. The British government continues to collaborate closely with medical and public-health experts. Treatment practices have been refined by experience and practical considerations, but not because of imposition by government fiat. Prohibition of heroin did not occur and punishment of drug abusers remains a secondary consideration in British policymaking (but is still a dominant consideration in the United States). Since 1960, the British heroin problem has grown and become complex. Drug-policy and treatment response have become diverse and, therefore, there is less of a clear "system."

In comparison with the situation in the United States, British policymakers and the general public favor public-health considerations over other moral concerns. Some British newspapers do promote "dope fiend'' images and demand punitive responses—and the American "drug free'' and

"just say no'' philosophies are often articulated. Nonetheless, British drug policy and funding are primarily directed by medical and public-health specialists. This means that heroin addicts and drug abusers are not as heavily stigmatized as they are in the United States.

The British public accepts the idea of providing heroin and methadone as medicine, has few moral qualms about addicts, and little fear of needles. Lacking the harsh and punitive moral consensus against drugs that prevails in the United States, the British government has considerable latitude to experiment with differing policies, to shift treatment practices to accord with practical experience, and to keep modifying its policy responses to the ever-changing drug scene. Whether the British system could work in the United States, which is much larger and more populous than Great Britain, remains an open question.

(SEE ALSO: British System of Drug-Addiction Treatment; Needle and Syringe Exchanges and HIV/AIDS; Policy Alternatives)


Parker, H., Bakx, K., & Newcombe, R. (1988). Living with heroin. Stony Straford, England: Open University Press.

PEARSON, G. (1991). Drug problems and policies in Britain. In J. Q. Wilson & M. Tonry (Eds.), Crime and justice series (vol. 14). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rouse, J. J., & Johnson, B. D. (1991). Hidden paradigms of morality in debates about drugs: Historical and policy shifts in British and American drug policies. In J. A. Inciardi (Ed.), The drug legalization debate. Beverly Hills: Sage.

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