04:04, July 15 201 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-15 04:04:03
Who will this ‘new’ Home Office drugs strategy help? Not today’s users

The wait is finally over for those of us working in the drug policy and drug treatment sectors. The Home Office published its new drug strategy on Friday, two years after its planned deadline in 2015. Sadly, however, this is not a case of good things coming to those who wait. For a 50-page document, there’s very little in the new strategy that can earn it its name.

Against a backdrop of increasing policy innovation in the wider world, the main aims of this strategy are largely unchanged from the previous 2010 version. There’s still a focus on recovery, rather than harm reduction. A continued commitment to tackling the problems caused by drugs through the criminal justice system, rather than through the health system. A point blank refusal to consider decriminalisation, or any reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Worse, what good initiatives there are in the strategy – and there are some – seem to have been dreamed up by minds unfettered by the reality of public health, criminal justice and policing systems squeezed to breaking point.

Andy Burnham, giving the keynote address at a conference in Manchester last week aimed at developing a more connected response to the city’s rising spice epidemic, echoed the thoughts of many in these fields: “Where is the money? Our frontline services are being overwhelmed. I didn’t hear any mention of any extra funding in the radio this morning. It seems quite hollow, what was being said.”

First then, for the good news. Greater efforts are going to be made to provide effective, evidence-based drug prevention and education to young people. Gone are the school visits from the trite ex-user or the finger-wagging police officer: effective resilience training is in.

Prisoners, too, are to be given more help into recovery, their progress monitored closely. Far clearer and more explicit guidelines have been given on the value of opioid maintenance treatments, which allow so many people with opioid dependence to live their lives, and crucially, prevent overdoses.

The people who slip through the cracks of dual diagnosis from mental health and problem substance use are to be better catered for, rather than shunted between services reluctant to take on complex and demanding cases.

Of the rather pedestrian reforms, these are the brightest spots. However, with cuts to local authority public health budgets totalling £85m this year, and ringfenced drug treatment budgets expected to be cut by £22m, it’s anyone’s guess as to where the money will come from for such initiatives. More likely that these reductions will further eat into essential services such as needle exchanges, and hamper local authorities’ ability to properly assess the performance of the services they commission.

And that’s before we even get to the bad news. The introduction to the new strategy takes great pains to state the importance of evidence-based policy, and the Home Office explicitly thanks its own advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for its invaluable recommendations. This must be the same withering kind of “Thanks but no thanks” experienced by the Big Issue sellers who operate near St James’s Park tube in London, as they catch the eyes of those leaving the Home Office after a long day of strategy-writing. Because very few of the ACMD’s evidence-based recommendations have been taken on board.

Last December, in response to the worrying rise in drug-related deaths (heroin deaths have more than doubled in a three-year period), the ACMD released its recommendations, including maintaining or even increasing funding for drug treatment, adoption of drug consumption rooms and a national roll-out of heroin-assisted treatment for addicts. Guess how many of these found their way into the new strategy?

No one was betting on a revolution. Without prompting, our Home Office was never going to become a rabid drug-reformer-in-chief, but it didn’t need to look far for at least some inspiration. Glasgow is on course to open the UK’s first drug consumption room in the near future, The Loop’s drug-testing facilities are rolling out across festivals nationwide this summer, and police forces in both Bristol and Durham are continuing with successful pilots of drug diversion schemes, which amounts to de facto drug decriminalisation in these areas.

Following this veritable plethora of missed opportunities for adopting evidence-based harm reduction policies, it is all the more galling that the final plank in the new drug strategy is devoted to what is dubbed global action. The government plans parade its drug policies on the global stage, in the hope that other countries will follow its lead.

First and foremost in its showcase is the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which it claims puts the UK in the lead of the global response to new psychoactive substances. Presumably it’ll be keeping quiet about the aforementioned spice epidemic ravaging homeless communities in Manchester and elsewhere, largely seen as a direct result of this act.

Similarly, the government’s own refusal to consider decriminalisation puts its own policies at odds with each other, with the Psychoactive Substances Act allowing possession while the ever more ancient Misuse of Drugs Act criminalises it. What results is criminal justice pot-luck for anyone caught with a bag of mystery white powder in their back pocket.

Maybe good things do come to those who wait, but that wait looks like it’ll be at least another five years. Meanwhile those drug death figures will continue to rise, reminding us of those who cannot wait any longer.