In the last few weeks there have been several reports on drugs which have generated headlines about legalisation or decriminalisation. This noise has drowned out the central, depressing fact that so many in our country are addicted to one or several chemicals, and that the state is complicit in keeping many in dependency. It is estimated that 1 million Britons are addicted to prescribed drugs, 1.6 million are dependent upon alcohol, and 380,000 are problematic illegal drug users. Legality, for these people, is largely irrelevant, they are addicts who need their next fix, be it a packet of valium, bottle of super-strength cider or a bag of heroin.
The reports call for better treatment for addicts but fail to address why, despite thehighest spend on drug policy in Europe, at 0.48 per cent of GDP, few are leaving the system free of dependence. While there are currently 197,110 in treatment, only 21,810 left last year using no illegal drug at all. Of those given methadone treatment, for example, which can be a step along the path to recovery by helping to wean an addict off heroin, one in four is still using it as a substitute four years later.
Be it GPs supplying prescription drugs to an estimated 1 million addicts or the Department of Health issuing methadone to those struggling with heroin addiction, successive governments have been complicit in dealing drugs to the people it is meant to serve. The surest way to reduce addiction lies not in tinkering with the legal classification but rather to collapse demand by treating addicts and dismantling the desire for future use.
Yet the current Government’s policies risk changing very little, despite the rhetoric. The Department for Education, in its drive to restore traditional subjects to the curriculum, is pushing out preventative approaches which protect our children. Meanwhile, from 1 April this year, the Government is handing drugs treatment budgets to local commissioners and removing their protective ring fence. There is a clear danger that local commissioners who lack an understanding of addiction could back the creation of cycle lanes rather than rehabilitation, thereby further abandoning those who need help.
There is a remarkable track record of getting things done on drugs policy. The drug strategies of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s succeeded in their aim of averting an HIV epidemic by reducing needle use and needle sharing. Crime reduction has also been prioritised by offering addicts legal substitutes. However, the collateral damage from this approach has also been great, creating a generation of addicts parked on methadone dependency.
The localism agenda and the legalisation debate risk failing to fully address the root causes of addiction, and why so many lives have been devastated by this epidemic.
The CSJ is conducting a review into addictions policy and will be touring the country to see whether the NHS reforms and local authorities are investing in the long-term recovery programmes. We will consider what works in reducing addiction and restoring lives. The Coalition, and this Prime Minister in particular, have promised a great deal on this issue which blights the lives of families across society, particularly those in poorer communities. We will hold them to account.