pounds 34m 'can be saved' in the war on drugs

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The Independent Online
The cost to the taxpayer of drug-related crime could be dramatically reduced by investing in treatment services for addicts, according to a government-commissioned report published yesterday.

A survey of more than 1,100 addicts shows that in the three months before they started treatment they committed around 70,000 crimes, mainly theft, which, it is estimated, would cost society pounds 34m over two years - far greater than the cost of treatment.

The addicts in the survey were largely heroin users, average age 29, and had used the drug for an average of nine years. They had "an extensive treatment history". Despite this, the task force which has conducted the most comprehensive review of treatment services for drug users in England to date, said there is no doubt that treatment works, although progress is slow.

The Rev John Polkinghorne, who chaired the task force, said yesterday: "Drug misuse is a complex and diverse issue. It causes immense harm to individuals and society. Our review clearly shows that treatment works in reducing that harm. It also makes clear that there are no 'magic bullets', and that treatment must be matched to the needs of individuals.

"A key finding is that to be effective, treatment must embrace care in the widest sense. This might include addressing housing needs, child-care issues, retraining for employment, and general support." Syringe exchanges, and the prescribing of substitute drugs help minimise harm and need to be at the centre of the overall approach to treatment, he added.

The task force is calling for renewed efforts to reach users not in touch with the services, and "better use" of those contacts to influence behaviour.

It says a local, co-ordinated approach is needed, and health purchasers and providers should be more flexible over treatment programmes. There is no single preferred form of treatment for users, and the benefits of methadone reduction programmes, oral metha-done maintenance programmes, residential rehabilitation projects and specialist in-patient drug dependency units are highlighted in the report. It recommends that the opportunities presented in prison to treat addicts must not be ignored.

No contact opportunity should be missed, Dr Polkinghorne said, calling for health checks to be offered at needle exchanges and other first points of contact, and hepatitis B vaccinations to be more widely available. Counselling and support services should be recognised as core, not subsidiary, components of treatment, he added. During their investigation, the task force visited 27 treatment centres in nine areas, took evidence from 114 individuals or organisations, and commissioned eight reviews by leading international authorities.

It also commissioned a programme of new research - the National Treatment Outcome Research Study - which tracked 1,100 addicts over 18 months and their responses to different forms of treatment.

Announcing an additional pounds 6m for services for young people and methadone programmes, the Health Minister, John Bowis, said the Department of Health would study the report's 80 recommendations - and would draw up guidance for health and local authorities.

t The Task Force to Review Services for Drug Misusers; Department of Health Distribution Unit, PO Box 410, Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7LN.