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'Tackling drug use costs the UK eye-watering sums'

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Our Practice section contains two articles about the use of illegal drugs – one about the legal and ethical issues nurses face when their patients use cannabis for therapeutic reasons, and one discussing nurses’ attitudes to substance users, and whether drugs should be decriminalised.

Unsurprisingly, opinions on the general issue of drugs varied, but that didn’t really matter – our opinions aren’t going to affect anyone’s health and safety. Nurses’ opinions, on the other hand, do affect others. Whether you’ve been aware of it or not, it’s almost certain that some of your patients have used illegal drugs. And in some cases that fact may have been relevant to their presenting condition.

If you haven’t been aware of their drug use it may be because those patients have not disclosed the fact because they feared your disapproval. They may even have worried that you would refuse to treat them or might alert the authorities. And you might even be surprised at which patients they were; drug use isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young – 69-year-old Sir Paul McCartney may have decided to give up cannabis but some of his contemporaries are doubtless still indulging in that and other substances.

The impact of UK drug laws on healthcare and health professionals is rarely discussed and difficult to quantify, but they certainly present health professionals with dilemmas and difficulties. They may also cost the NHS far more than we realise. While some patients’ treatment is directly related to their drug use, how many others with unrelated problems suffer complications because the professionals caring for them did not have important information that would affect treatment decisions? And how many harm themselves because they find it difficult to access information that might make their drug-taking less dangerous? 

Political debates about whether drug laws should be abolished, relaxed or tightened up tend to look at issues around criminality. Perhaps next time politicians take a leaf out of the nursing book, and look at the issue holistically. Tackling drug use costs the UK eye-watering sums – perhaps we need to find better ways of spending that money. 

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