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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Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

 

Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge