In his latest blog Richard Branson has said it’s time to end the war on drugs following a visit to Portugal where a decade of decriminalisation has resulted in impressive levels of harm reduction. Branson says bad drug policies affect hundreds of thousands of people around the world; the Portugese alternative has had wide-ranging results in a country where a decade ago drug crime and its consequences had huge social impacts.

But here at Changing Lives, working with the people and families affected by long-term substance abuse I know the picture’s not as clear cut. Whilst I absolutely agree with Branson’s view that drug policy should be about health and not criminality, our work repeatedly confirms to me the importance of a very simple message – that substance abuse is a serious harm to individuals, families and communities and policy messages need to be clear on this point.

Fundamentally we know the long-term effects of drug use, even of so-called soft substances such as cannabis, include mental health problems, respiratory difficulties and, in extreme cases, psychosis. At Changing Lives we work with nearly 1,000 people every month taking the brave but difficult steps towards a life free of drugs and alcohol. We support abstinence-based approaches to recovery which mean many people can and do live a life free from substances.

The Portuguese policy approach, moving the issue from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Health, and thereby treating it as a medical rather than criminal act, is to be applauded. The UK’s 2010 Drug and Alcohol Strategy reflects this and it’s a stance our addictions work actively encourages, by taking a therapeutic, person-centred approach to recovery. However as we have seen with the recent huge rise in legal highs – substances which get round drugs legislation by containing legal components – the very notion of ‘legal’ can present a damaging message. One which suggests these substances are safe and by implication, acceptable.

Branson highlights the increase in the number of people on methadone treatment in Portugal (14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization) as a step forward. However in the UK more than a decade of effective work has already moved beyond the methadone agenda, recognising the important part of it plays in drug treatment, whilst aiming higher for lives free of all substances. Here therapeutic interventions now aim to address the underlying causes of addiction and don’t just act as a medical sticking plaster.

Put simply drugs and their legal high counterparts create harm – and kill. So whilst I’m delighted to see the Government’s recent plans to introduce a full ban on legal highs, it’s vital that we recognise the limits to the Portugese approach, and the specific context in which the policy operates. As a charity on Richard Branson’s Virgin Money doorstep I’d love to continue this discussion and see how the Portugese experience reflects that of our communities in Prudoe, Pelaw and Peterlee.

To find out more about Changing Lives addiction and recovery work click here.