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Innovation Fund to Reduce Demand for Illicit Substances - Call Specification - Phase 2


Published: 11 April 2023

Version: 3.0 - April 2023

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Key Dates

Stage 1 Call Launch 24 May 2023
Briefing online event 12.00 Monday 22 May 2023
Stage 1 Call Close 19 July 2023
RSS Workshops (previously RDS) September / October 2023
Stage 2 Call Opens 18 October 2023
Stage 2 Call Closes 13 December 2023
Applicants notified of outcome Late February 2024
Due diligence and Contracting February - April 2024
Projects start* 01 May 2024
Phase 3 dates Will be announced in Spring 2025

*Please note, Phase 2 awarded projects are expected to start no later than 01 May 2024, subject to satisfactory due diligence. We won’t be able to accommodate delays on the commencement day due to the phased nature of the call. Organisations must therefore mobilise in order to provide the appropriate level of information that will be required.

Please note NIHR terms and conditions of the Research Contract will apply and terms are non-negotiable. NIHR Research Contract templates and further information are available through the website.

Key Features

  • A call potentially up to £5m focused on developing, evaluating, and implementing interventions to reduce and prevent the demand for so called ‘recreational drugs’
  • The call will be run over three phases: Phase 1 (development), Phase 2 (evaluation), and Phase 3 (implementation)
  • Phase 2 will be open to proposals up to £500k over 12 months, and Phase 3 proposals up to £500k over 10 months
  • Successful proposals at Phase 1 can apply for Phase 2 and (if successful) Phase 3 funding. However, new proposals can directly apply for Phase 2 funding and Phase 3 funding independently. 
  • We are keen to hear from all organisations that have a proposal for primary prevention, early intervention and/or deterrent-based activities that could credibly help reduce demand for drugs. Organisations and individuals looking for potential research or operational collaborators can contact the NOCRI team and for free help writing your research proposal please contact the Research Support Service - RSS (previously supported by the Research Design Service). We recommend that organisations without research functions collaborate to get the best chance of success. 
  • Phase 2 Stage 1 will open 24 May 2023 and the deadline for applications is 13:00 19 July 2023. Outcomes from Stage 1 will be released on 18 October 2023 and successful applicants will be invited to submit a Stage 2 application closing 13 December 2023. 


The Government published a new 10-year drug strategy, From Harm to Hope,[1] in December 2021, responding to Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review of Drugs.[2] Within the review, Dame Carol highlighted that there is an increasing amount of so-called recreational drug use but limited evidence in what may deter people from using these drugs, and asserted that this can no longer be ignored.

The latest statistics on drug misuse [3] suggest that approximately 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years (approximately 3 million adults) and approximately 1 in 5 adults aged 16 to 24 years (approximately 1.1 million adults) reported last year drug use in the year ending June 2022. 

Drug use presents significant challenges for society. A high demand for drugs increases drug-related crime and violence. Drug-related crime also includes the exploitation of vulnerable groups and has an effect on the economy and productivity. Drug use also causes significant harm to the individual. Any drug use carries risk, and the individual can experience immediate or longer-term harm including death or poor physical and/or mental health. Additionally, what may seem to be so-called ‘recreational’ usage can be, or can lead to, problematic use and dependency.

Reducing the demand for drugs is one of the three key aims of the drug strategy, which set out an overarching ambition of reducing overall drug use towards a 30-year low over the decade following the strategy's publication in December 2021. The strategy included a range of projects aimed at reducing drug demand across all age groups from age 11 upwards, and at building the evidence base on what works to achieve this aim. 

The problem

An analysis undertaken by Public Health England depicted the substantial social and economic costs related to illicit drug use:

  • The total cost of harms related to illicit drug use in England was £19.3 billion for 2017-18. Drug-related crime was the main driver of total costs, with recorded offences committed in England by drug users amounting to c.£9.3 billion in 2017-18
  • Within this overall crime cost, criminal justice services (CJS) cost £733 million
  • Drug-related enforcement costs amounted to £680 million
  • The harms associated with drug-related deaths and homicides made up the next largest cost at £6.3 billion
  • Drug treatment and prevention only made up a small fraction of the total cost at £553 million.

Data from the Office for National Statistics [4] shows that in 2022 around 3 million adults reported using illicit drugs within the last year, with drug use up by 12% since 2013. The latest figures show that approximately 9.2% of adults aged 16 - 59 and approximately 18.6 adults aged 16 to 24 years reported using a drug in the year June 2022. 

Cannabis, powder cocaine and nitrous oxide continue to be the most commonly used drugs in England and Wales. I the year ending June 2022, 7.4% and 16.2% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 16 to 24 years, respectively, reported having used cannabis; a similar level to the year ending March 2020 and the year ending March 2012; however, levels are much lower compared with the year ending December 1995.

Furthermore, whilst the large majority of people who use drugs each year are occasional users, will often stop before their 30s, and will not go on to develop issues with problematic or dependent use, the increasing prevalence of so-called ‘recreational drug’ use demonstrates the growing need to do more in the prevention and intervention space to find effective ways to deter people from initiating, continuing or increasing drug use. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) also highlight that more evidence is needed into vulnerabilities to drug use, and prevention approaches suitable for different circumstances.[5]

However, there is currently limited evidence on what may work to reduce demand for drugs. In their recent review of the existing evidence on prevention of drug misuse, the ACMD set out that mass communication strategies,[6] particularly those that rely on approaches that aim to scare individuals into not or stopping taking drugs, do not work.

In 2015, Public Health England published a summary of international evidence on the prevention of drug and alcohol use.[7] This includes examples of implementation in England. This report concluded that potential factors for successful interventions include personal and social skills education, multi-component programmes, and staff who are qualified to deliver the interventions. However, scare tactics, knowledge only approaches, and peer mentoring without evidence base may lead to negative or no results. Further evidence as to what may and may not be effective to prevent drug use in different age groups was also highlighted by the ACMD in their recent prevention review.[8]

Summary of the demographics of recreational drug users

Age For the year ending June 2022, the proportion of adults reporting any drug use in the last year was highest among those aged 20 to 24 years (23.3%). Cannabis, ecstasy and nitrous oxide use was particularly prevalent among young 16-24 year olds in the year end June 2022. 
Gender Men account for 67.5% of 2021/2022 drug users in treatment. Across all the main drug types, men are twice as likely as women to use drugs. [10]
Ethnicity Recreational drug use is much higher among those who self-define as “Mixed” ethnicity, which may be partially linked to higher levels of deprivation.
Household Income Cannabis use is more prevalent among those with an annual household income of less than £10,400, while use of class A drugs is most prevalent among those on annual household incomes above £52,000. [11]
Geography Overall drug use is highest in the South West and South East of England and is the lowest in the North East and the West Midlands.
Other Factors Use of ecstasy and nitrous oxide is higher among students than non-students of the same age. Drug use is considerably higher among those who regularly consume alcohol and visit pubs/clubs, even after controlling for age.

Call overview

NIHR is launching Phase 2 of a call as part of the Government’s 10 year drug strategy, funded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in partnership with the Joint Combating Drugs Unit (JCDU) (working across the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, Ministry of Justice, DHSC and the Department for Education). The call aims to fund projects that address demand for recreational drugs and are thereby likely to lead to reduced drug use and dependency.

Subject to budget availability, we expect the call to have £5m available to run over 3 phases. Successful projects at each phase will be eligible to the following phase (depending on successful outcomes and assessment of a separate application into the subsequent phases). However new applications will also be accepted in Phase 2 and Phase 3.

PhaseOutlineCompetition Structure
Phase 1 Proposals which undertake the necessary preparatory work to prepare for an evaluation in Phase 2. Such proposals could include: development and refinement, preliminary studies, and feasibility studies of new interventions, products, processes or services, undertaking the necessary stakeholder engagement and public involvement, developing collaborations and partnerships, particularly with organisations which may implement successful interventions. (projects up to £200k over up to 6 months) Application portal closed 12 October 2022 with outcome notification in February 2023. Projects began March 2023. 
Phase 2 Further development and refinement, and testing and evaluation of successful Phase 1 projects, in addition to new applications to develop new and evaluate existing interventions (projects up £500k over up to 12 months) Phase 2 Stage 1 will open 24 May 2023 and the deadline for Phase 2 Stage 1 applications is 1pm 19 July 2023. Outcomes from Stage 1 will be released on 18 October 2023.
Phase 3 Testing evaluation on a wider population, implementation and rollout within England, or England and Wales where the intervention is focused on policing and/or criminal justice. (projects up to £500K over up to 10 months). Call due to open in 2025. 

Successful projects at each phase can apply for the next phase. However, new proposals can also directly apply for Phase 2 funding and Phase 3 funding. In each phase all applications will be judged on their individual merits regardless of whether they were successful in a previous phase or not. 

What do we fund? 

The Innovation Fund to Reduce Demand for Illicit Substances funds research on developing, evaluation and implementing interventions to reduce and prevent demand for so-called 'recreational drugs' such as powder cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy and nitrous oxide. The fund will support the development and piloting of new interventions delivered within local communities, their evaluation and future rollout in the community if found to be effective. 

We would like to hear about projects looking at use of so-called recreational drugs in the following areas:

  • Primary prevention and deterrent interventions to prevent experimental use among cohorts ages 11-15, 16-24, 25+, or narrower age brackets if suitable for intervention. 
  • Early intervention approaches and deterrent interventions to prevent problematic or dependent drug use in the future, particularly in the 16-24 and 25+ age ranges.

When is funding available? 

Phase 2 will run as a two-stage application process. Stage 1 will open for applications in May 2023, and applications successful in Stage 1 will be invited to Stage 2 which will open October 2023. Stage 1 will be a shorter application form and further detail on plans and evaluation methods will be required from successful applications for Stage 2. Funding for Phase 2 will be available between May 2024 and May 2025. 

How do I apply? 

Phase 2 will operate a two-stage application process. Successful applications at Stage 1 will be invited to Stage 2. You must apply using the online form in the Research Management System (RMS), which will be made available when the call opens on 24 May 2023

Application to each stage will consist of the following process: 

  • Initial scope check and triage by NIHR and Committee chair/members
  • External peer and public review (for Stage 2)
  • Pre-Committee assessment
  • Committee assessment

The Department of Health and Social Care and the Joint Combating Drugs Unit, with input from other relevant Government Department, will ratify proposals recommended for funding.


The fund will be open to all organisations which are a legal entity, regardless of size or sector, that have an innovative solution to reduce the demand for drugs.

Organisations can be based anywhere in the UK but the proposed research must show potential, and be appropriate, for rollout in England, or England and Wales where the intervention is focused on policing and/or criminal justice. This includes ensuring that proposals are likely to be supported within the existing UK government policy landscape.

Collaborations between academics and organisations such as police forces, local authorities, youth clubs, schools, universities, and employers are strongly encouraged. In addition, applicants should consider involvement of patients with lived experience and members of the public to inform project development from their perspective.  

Proposed projects should take a population-level approach such as but not limited to:

  • Youth club interventions that address issues that drive young people to use drugs
  • Education-focused interventions through schools, colleges, universities, counselling, or other services
  • Engaging local communities to work together in reducing drug use in their area
  • Employer-led approaches to reducing drug use within the workplace and/or workforce
  • Social care approaches, including in partnership with other organisations
  • Charity model approaches, including in partnership with other organisations
  • Youth-led movements and projects
  • Policing or enforcement approaches, including in partnership with other organisations
  • Social media interventions
  • Technological approaches

We would support proposals based on emerging evidence. This could include drawing on evidence on successful approaches in other areas of public health (such as reducing / preventing smoking) or approaches tested internationally. In these cases, we would look for a clear rationale of how this approach is applicable to the reducing demand for illicit substances challenge. 

This call will not fund

  • Proposals aimed at reducing use of crack cocaine or opioids.
  • Projects for which there is already substantial evidence, or the evidence base indicates, that there would be no positive effect.
  • Proposals that duplicate interventions already being funded at local or national level, such as through the drug strategy treatment and recovery funding within local authorities or the Addiction Mission run by the Office for Life Sciences.
  • Interventions which have previously been shown to be ineffective or counterproductive
  • Survey research or clinical trials that do not lead to a tangible population-level intervention during the period covered by the fund. 

Assessment criteria

Applications will be reviewed against the following assessment criteria:

  • The potential for the proposal to develop unique and innovative primary prevention and deterrent interventions to prevent experimental drug, and early intervention approaches to prevent use becoming misuse and/or dependency
  • The design and feasibility of the project plan and the appropriateness of the proposed evaluation methodology.
  • Rationale for the choice of intervention and evidence for the intervention's ability to reduce use of so-called recreational substances. 
  • The extent to which the project is likely to have a positive impact on the motivations and vulnerabilities of the target population and how effectively the project team will be able to evidence progress towards their project’s intended outcomes
  • Meaningful involvement and engagement with the targeted community and the public throughout the lifecycle of the research from proposal development, design to delivery and dissemination of the research
  • Strength of the project team, including relevant involvement of stakeholders such as police, local authorities, youth clubs, schools, universities, and emergency services
  • Expected societal impact and plan for effective rollout in England (England and Wales where the intervention is focused on policing and/or criminal justice)
  • Quality and appropriateness of the project management structure
  • Governance arrangements
  • Value for money.

Additional considerations

Prospective applicants should also note:

  • There is the expectation that proposals must be able to effectively engage with the community they propose to target.
  • At Stage 2, a robust assessment of cost and an estimate of benefits and value for money must be presented. This should include a full costing for the project, outlining how this spend is reasonable to deliver the aims of the project.


We have created a set of FAQs for the Phase 2 funding call which may be applicable to your questions about any phase of the funding call or the application process. If you still have questions please contact us at 

RSS Launch Event

The NIHR Research Support Service (RSS) (previously supported by the Research Design Service) hosted an online briefing event on Monday 22 May 2023 for prospective applicants to hear more about the funding call, the assessment process, and additional support NIHR can provide. You can find a recording of the webinar here

Applicants to this call should collaborate with the target community and relevant stakeholders - such as police, education services, youth clubs and local authorities - on their application and throughout delivery of the project. Organisations and individuals looking for potential collaborators can directly email NIHR at Please include a short description of the intervention to be developed/evaluated and the collaborators you are looking for (e.g. academics, practitioners, community based organisations etc) and a description of contributions sought from collaborators. 

Contact details

If you have any queries, please contact

Do you need help getting started? Contact the Research Support Service - RSS (previously supported by the Research Design Service).

Do you need help finding collaborators? Contact the NOCRI team

References and Key Documents

  1. HM Government, From harm to hope: a 10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives [online], 2021, [Accessed August 2022]. Available from: From harm to hope: a 10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives

  2. Black C, Independent review of drugs by Professor Dame Carol Black [online], 2020, [Accessed August 2022]. Available from: Independent review of drugs by Professor Dame Carol Black

  3. [3][4][11] ONS, Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending June 2022 [online], 2022, [Accessed March 2023]. Available from: Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2020

  4. [5] [6] [8] Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, ACMD Drug misuse prevention review [online], 2022, [Accessed August 2022]. Available from: ACMD Drug misuse prevention review

  5. [7] Public Health England, The international evidence on the prevention of drug and alcohol use [online], 2015, [Accessed August 2022], Available from: The international evidence on the prevention of drug and alcohol use

  6. [9] Black C, Review of Drugs - evidence relating to drug use, supply and effects, including current trends and future risks [online], 2020, [Accessed March 2023]. Available from: Review of Drugs - evidence relating to drug use, supply and effects, including current trends and future risks

  7. [10] HM Government, People in treatment: substance, sex, age [online], 2022, [Accessed March 2023]. Available from: People in treatment: substance, sex, age