The battle to tackle drug addiction is not lost

The debate about legalisation is a distraction.

It is impossible not to be moved by the plight of communities in Mexico and other drug-producing countries across the world. Crime and violence related to the supply of drugs are without a doubt causing extreme grief to citizens and governments. But reaching to decriminalise or legalise those drugs in the hope that it will overcome those communities’ deep-rooted problems offers them a false prospectus, and overlooks the nuanced picture of drug use and addiction which in this country at least, is in decline.

For many producer nations, drugs are one of a number of complex factors contributing to adverse conditions within their countries.  Legalisation would compound the devastating effects of drug use and the drugs trade, as former UN head of drugs and crime Antonio Maria Costa argues, especially if the structural issues that leave those states without the resources to tackle the causes and consequences of their drug problem are not addressed.

The legal framework in this country does not prevent those with drug problems from being treated humanely and effectively. Drug treatment is freely and quickly available via the NHS in England, and offers users the prospect of stability and recovery from the chaotic lives inherent in addiction. Over the last six years, 340,000 mainly heroin users have got help for their addiction, of whom around one third successfully completed their treatment, which compares favourably to the international evidence of recovery. Addicts are treated as patients in the health service, and if there are other crimes to account for, addiction treatment is offered for offenders in the community and in prison in line with NHS standards.

Drug use in this country is falling, particularly amongst young people. Heroin, crack and cannabis are being used by fewer people, and whilst there are more young people taking so-called legal highs and novel drugs, their numbers are nowhere near the levels we faced when setting up the nation’s treatment response primarily for heroin addicts more than a decade ago. At the same time, more people are recovering from drug addiction in England. There is no cause for complacency, in fact we are accelerating efforts to orientate drug treatment towards recovery, but it is worth pointing out that the trends on use, addiction and recovery are heading in the right direction.

Domestically and globally, the public discourse about drugs tends to exaggerate the power of the drug, and minimises the impact of social and economic circumstances. Compared to the 2.8million who use illegal drugs there are around 300,000 heroin or crack users in England, over half of whom are in treatment each year. Probably another 30,000 or so are in treatment for dependency on other drugs e.g. powder cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy. Those who become addicted tend to be seen by the media as the victims of hedonism, the random by-product of widespread recreational drug use. A steady trickle of millionaires’ children and celebrities fuel this myth, playing to the anxieties of middle class readers about their own children. Too often, those in the public eye think they understand drug addiction because of personal or family experiences which bear little relation to the multiple disadvantages experienced by most addicts.

In reality drug addiction is targeted. The 300,000 heroin and crack addicts are not a random sub set of England’s regular drug users. If they were, they would be as likely to live in Surrey as Salford, to have been to Westminster School as Wandsworth Prison, and their childhood would have been as likely to have been overseen by a live-in nanny as much as by Newham Borough Council.

Addiction, unlike use, is concentrated in our poorest communities, and within those communities it is the individuals with the least capital who are the most vulnerable to succumb and least able to extricate themselves. Compared to the rest of the population, heroin and crack addicts are male, working class, offenders, products of the care system, with poor educational records, little or no experience of employment, and a history of mental illness. Increasingly they are also in their forties with declining physical health. They will tend to struggle more than most to make sound personal decisions, which contributes to their other problems.

The reputation of heroin is such that few people will even try it. Of those who become addicted, the majority will recognise where they may be heading and stop. Amongst them will be people who are intelligent, resourceful and ambitious who will realise they are in “in over their heads”, pull themselves up sharp, and sort themselves out. Others will not necessarily have the innate resources to do this but will have family and friends to support them to achieve the same outcome. Key to this success will be the existence of an alternative life with the reality or realistic prospect of a job, a secure home, a stake in society and supportive relationships. The access to social, personal and economic capital not only enables individuals to overcome their immediate addiction, but to avoid relapse.

The government’s 2010 drug strategy recognises that treating addicts in isolation from efforts to address their employment, their housing status and the myriad other problems they face is unlikely to lead to long term recovery. According addiction primacy as a cause of poverty, criminality, worklessness, and child neglect denies the fact that it is as much a consequence of individual family and community breakdown as its genesis. Drug addiction exacerbates problems, and unless it is addressed will inhibit or even prevent progress in other aspects of people’s lives, but addressing it in isolation is not a silver bullet.

Drugs are not the unique barrier to normal social functioning for most addicted people. Drugs are not the unique barrier to a better, fairer and safer world in drug producing countries. The debate about legalisation is a distraction from facing and comprehensively addressing the social and economic factors that underpin drug use, addiction and the drugs trade.

Paul Hayes is the Chief Executive of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA)

Opium poppy buds in an Afghan field. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Hayes is the Chief Executive of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA)

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution