Let’s not play politics with drugs

by James Watkins

Drug addiction is too often the background noise in communities up and down the country. Even if your own family has not been affected, it is very likely you will know someone who, in some form, has been damaged by this trade.

The financial costs of the drugs trade also demonstrates in stark terms the harm that is being caused. For instance, in the West Midlands police area, as of January 2009, crime linked to 1125 class A drug users had an estimated impact of £108 million on the economy. The charity, Addaction, claim that between 1998 and 2008, drug-related ill health and crime cost the UK economy £110 billion.

The last government had made progress in tackling this problem. The 2009/10 British crime survey found that 8.6% of 16 – 59 year olds in England and Wales used illicit drugs. That figure in 2008/09 had been 10.1%. The number of 16 – 24 year olds using illicit drugs in England and Wales dropped to 20% – compared to 22.6% in 2008/09.

But these statistics also show the shockingly high numbers of people whose lives are being steadily destroyed by drugs. The government will shortly publish its public health and drugs strategies – which will have implications for every single family. This will also be a test of Labour’s commitment to constructive opposition.

Nudges and winks from ministers on their emerging drugs policy suggest a mixture of good intentions and being blindsided by the temptation of easy headlines. Let’s take first the good points of the government’s emerging drugs policy.

In August, David Cameron said “I would like to try to provide, difficult though it will be given the shortage of money we have been left, residential treatment programmes. In the end, the way you get drug addicts clean is by getting them off drugs altogether, challenging their addiction rather than just replacing one opiate with another”.

Putting aside the tired and faulty rhetoric on the economy, this is an approach Labour could support if the details of the plans matches these ambitions – and is not just a ruse to cut the budget for methadone prescriptions used to help addicts get off drugs. This Conservative approach is, in part, a dig at Labour’s strategy to end drug abuse. Tory leaning think tanks such as the centre for policy studies and the centre for social justice portrayed the last government as leaving addicts on prescribed methadone with no real attempt at rehabilitation.

While this is crude stereotyping, Labour should avoid falling into the trap of defending the past but potentially – subject to looking at the details – support an approach that builds upon the last government’s successes.

But the prime minister’s ambitions could be hampered by the Tories’ own policy on public health. As Andy Burnham has rightly said, cuts in local authority social care budgets will negatively impact upon the work of the NHS. And with the Tory public health green paper in January suggesting that decisions on tackling drugs should be a matter for local councils, it is hard to see how the strained resources of local authorities could help get these ambitions off the ground.

On top of this, the government’s obsession with “localism” might not help when it comes to drug addiction – for as the UK drug policy commission reported in August, “problem drug users are a very strongly stigmatised group and this has a profound effect on their lives, including their ability to escape addiction”. So, if the care for drug users is moved away from the NHS to councils, there is a danger that prejudice from councillors in some areas could hold up funds – so hindering the help addicts need to get off drugs.

There is one potential policy the government could put forward in December that merits outright opposition from Labour. The home office consultation paper on its drugs strategy for England, Scotland and Wales suggested that ministers were considering threatening benefit cuts to drug users in order to ensure compliance so that people get treatment to escape their addiction.

This is a bizarre proposal. The addiction caused by drugs does not lead to rational thought, but to a demand for the next fix. Is it any wonder then that the statutory body, the social security advisory committee, has warned the government that any such move is likely to lead to a rise in prostitution and crime.

While taxpayers’ money should not go into dealers’ pockets, taking money away before an addict has faced up to the need for help will just drive crime rates up. What is needed is a straightforward joined up approach. Immediate help for addicts with methodone support leading to full rehab and – finally – intensive help to give new hope for the person’s life such as training and help with finding a home. Using people’s tragic addiction as a smokescreen to cut the benefits bill not only is harmful to addicts but also hurts all of us – as more people will be tempted to go into crime to feed their habit.

Clearly, policing is also critical to reduce the drugs trade. But with the first cuts of police officers already announced in Greater Manchester and ministers wanting to spend money on elected commissioners rather than bobbies on the beat, the need to focus on front line neighbourhood policing will be part of Labour’s wider campaign to safeguard our streets.

The tragedies caused by drugs are with us all the time. The forthcoming government approach to tackling this problem could help change lives for the better.

This will be a test of Labour’s commitment to constructive opposition. Without reform, the Tories’ knee jerk approach to driving services out of the NHS and cutting benefits could turn the menace of drugs into a crisis.

James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee. He writes in a personal capacity.

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6 Responses to “Let’s not play politics with drugs”

  1. AndyinBrum says:

    The best way of solving the drugs problem is legalising it, and putting a small amount of money saved from criminalising the population running failed interdiction measures.

    Will also take money away from criminal gangs.

    But oh no, same failed old measures to keep the Daily Mail happy.

    Labour’s no better in this regard

  2. Danny says:

    Great headline! I was expecting so much more from the article.

    For decades now domestic party political point scoring, has dominated UK drug policy. The Labour Party has been one of the most reactionary forces in denying UK citizens a policy that is anywhere near an evidence based approach.

    I recently gave a talk at Stephen Twigg MP’s constituency party meeting and was delighted to hear that amongst the rank and file membership, there is a willingness, perhaps even a hunger for something different.

    A cross party approach, driven by the principles of effectiveness, justice and humanity is what is needed, and as the post from AndyinBrum states, only a legally regulated framework for production and supply can deliver this.

    It is the only policy that will genuinely protect the vulnerable (including children), whom the Labour Party purports to support.

    At the least all parties should support some kind of independent post legislative scrutiny of the Misuse of Drugs Act, in order to assess it effectiveness in delivering its intended outcomes.

    For more see: http://tdpf.org.uk/Impactassessmentlead.htm

    Any MP who refuses this call, as Gordon Brown did when I met him, and as the coalition has thus far, should be challenged by their constituents to explain their unwillingness.

    Given the billions wasted on the regime of prohibition, failure to submit the regime of prohibition to the same kind of scrutiny being applied to other areas of expenditure should result in voters turning to candidates who are willing to put the principles of cost effectiveness to the test across all policy areas.

    If we are seriously to stop the political game playing in thise area, the Labour Party can show leadership in opposition and call for a cross party approach to explaoring all policy options. Anything less will only perpetuate a system that plays with the lives of society’s most vulnerable communities throughout the world.

  3. Currently, enforcement aimed at reducing supply costs us £380 million per year, but the Home Office estimates the additional cost of ‘dealing with drug related crime’ is £1.7 billion a year, rising to over £4 billion a year, if costs across the criminal justice system are included. Yet despite these billions, the Government’s own analysis shows we are further than ever from the promised ‘drug free world’. Drugs are cheaper than ever before, use of the most harmful is at record highs, and massive levels of drug motivated crime is fuelling a crisis in the criminal justice system. In Scotland just 1% of heroin is seized.

    Despite this staggering cost ineffectiveness, drug enforcement spending remains protected from public scrutiny within a political bubble of law and order populism. This year alone, reports from the National Audit Office, The Public Accounts Committee and Home Affairs Select Committee have blasted the Home Office for having no meaningful evaluation of the impact of the money spent. In terms of major public spending initiatives, drug policy is unique in this regard.

    Crucially, it is now widely accepted that many of the costs of ‘the drug problem’ – including gang violence and acquisitive crime committed by addicts – are primarily fuelled by drug prohibition, not drug use per se. The Home Office does not dispute this, nor does the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which has acknowledged a ‘vast criminal black market’ is one of the ‘unintended negative consequences’ of the current approach.

    Because Labour and the Tories are still playing politics with the drugs issue, more cost-effective approaches, including Portuguese-style decriminalisation or the regulatory models for drug production and supply explored in Transform’s Blueprint for Regulation (with controls over products, vendors, outlets, access and marketing), have never been seriously considered. Questions about legal regulation are rebuffed with claims that the benefits would be outweighed by increased health costs from an assumed increase in use. These claims are baseless. The Home Office has never, and refuses to do, the cost benefit analysis needed to substantiate them – because they know what it would show. There is also no evidence that prohibition has been an effective deterrent, or reduced drug harms, or that strictly controlled legal availability would increase misuse. When challenged, successive governments have admitted all they have is a ‘belief’ the current system is effective.

    Transform’s analysis, which successive Government’s have not disputed, shows that legally regulating drug supply could save around £2 billion a year from the Home Office budget alone (primarily through a 75% drop in drug motivated crime), with much greater savings to society as a whole. On top of this is the potential to tax cannabis in particular.

    But squandering money on the War on Drugs is not just counterproductive, it starves worthwhile projects of funds. £2 billion a year in savings and taxes – which is an extremely conservative estimate – would be equivalent to paying the salaries of 86,000 police constables, or 92,600 teachers, or 94,000 nurses. Or just fund proven drug treatment and education programmes properly.

    At the very least the Labour Party and Unions should support the growing calls for an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act to formally counts the costs and benefits of the current approach, and explore alternatives for the first time, so future policy can be based on evidence not ideology. No more, in fact, than has been called for by the pre-coalition Lib Dems, and David Cameron when on the Home Affairs Select Committee so they can hardly attack Labour for making such a call. When even the US is exploring legal regulation of marijuana, what is the UK still afraid of? The Labour Party needs to ask; is it really still worth squandering billions a year just to sound tough on drugs when it is the poor who pick up the tab?

  4. Michael Linnell says:

    If you are going to use figures from the BSC that ask about people’s use of drugs, you need to understand that this is a very different statistic from ” lives (that are) are being steadily destroyed by drugs”. Not all alcohol use leads to a ‘destruction of lives’ anymore so than all drug use does. If you don’t understand the difference you shouldn’t be standing on a soapbox, if you do, your emotive language is ‘playing politics with drug”.

  5. Adam says:

    The massive increase in funding that Labour put into the drug treatment system over their period in government was both welcome and necessary and has had a considerable impact on crime, health and outcomes for those people addicted to drugs.

    David Cameron’s point is an ideological one on residential treatment services. The quote you include from him fails to provide the whole picture – residential rehab and detox facilities already exist and service users can already access them, as part of the overall commissioning structure. The levels of takeup across the country are varied and sometimes patchy – but hey that’s localism isn’t it?!

    But residential services are only one part of the drug treatment system – they don’t suit everyone and for some (maybe even most) the ability to access a community based treatment service in thier local area, where they have access to other local networks, friends and family for support may be far more suitable.

    It’s true that people shouldn’t be parked on methadone maintenance as a solution to opiate addiction and there are too many services that are unwilling to address this. These services need to change or be changed – decomissioned if necessary.

    Your point on removing benefits is incomplete. Labour already planned to introduce this when in government. You rightly point out that benefits shouldn’t be removed as a cost cutting measure but if people are claiming benefits there really should be an expectation that they engage with treatment providers.

    You also don’t seem to understand the present system of commissioning services. Services are already provided by a range of public, private and third sector organisation. They are commissioned by DAATs, partnerships between local councils, PCTs, Police and Probation services. So the localism is already there. I think that in the sector the general view is that the best treatment is provided by third sector organisations – across the country services have been moved away from ‘NHS’ providers for years – not as a way to reduce costs but in order to improve outcomes. The services are better but still free at the point of use. Your point about ‘driving services out of the NHS’ is unnecessary. Labour is going to have to get a grip on this issue pretty soon – what are we in favour of? Better health or better pensions for NHS staff?

  6. James Watkins says:

    Adam is right to refer to the role of local consortia to help addicts recover from addiction. The Tory Green Paper that was issued in January goes one step further, though. It cancels out the role of the NHS in such consortia and states services are solely a matter for councils to consider. Is it right that what are essentially clincial judgements would be taken out of the NHS structures and given to the whims of councils, some of which may not take a holistic and clinical view of the needs of addicts. That is why, Adam, I would suggest this is a step too far.

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