Benefits for addicts 'should not be withdrawn'

Withdrawing welfare benefits from addicts who refuse treatment is not a good idea, the Government's drugs advisers said today.

The Home Office is considering the prospect of some form of "financial benefit sanction" for claimants who fail to address their drug or alcohol dependency.

The suggestion was included in the Government's drug strategy consultation which opened in August and closed in September.

In response, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said: "Treatment should not be linked to financial sanctions.

"In this scenario a few may benefit, however the majority may not as it does not take into account the genesis of the addiction."

The response was presented at a meeting of the ACMD in central London today.

Referring to the Government's plans as possibly the "most radical shift in drugs policy for at least a decade", the council expressed concern about the relatively short timescales of the consultation period and emphasised the importance of considering "evidence-based arguments".

Professor Les Iversen, chairman of the ACMD, told the meeting: "The new drugs strategy is a fairly radical change from the previous government's drugs strategy which was focused entirely on harm reduction ... this new strategy focuses more on recovery.

"We continue to stress the need to use evidence.

"Recovery is a difficult word to define."

Prof Iversen also said the council hoped to find out more about Ivory Wave with a view to providing the Government with a full recommendation on control under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The so-called "legal high" was blamed in August for the death of chef Michael Bishton, 24, whose body was found in the sea off the Isle of Wight.

Sold legally for about £15 a packet, the substance is advertised as relaxing bath salts.

Earlier this month, the Home Office moved to ban imports of Ivory Wave's active ingredient - 2-DPMP - following advice from the ACMD, the meeting heard.

The compound 2-DPMP is closely related to Ritalin and was initially developed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy and was described by Professor Simon Gibbons at today's meeting as a "masked amphetamine".

Prof Iversen said: "We have been concerned by reports from the south-west of England and Scotland of users of Ivory Wave reporting to accident and emergency services with rather severe symptoms.

"In the case in Edinburgh they dealt with a number of users of Ivory Wave who had severe agitation and psychosis, agitation lasting several days and agitation so severe that some of these people had to be physically restrained and injected with sedatives.

"This is not a nice party drug - it's really quite dangerous.

"This substance, we felt, was sufficiently serious to warrant some immediate action to curb supply."

The cases had so far been "few and far between", he said, and the council did not yet have enough information to draw upon to make a recommendation on criminalising the drug.

"Over the next few months we intend to find out a lot more," Prof Iversen added.

The ACMD plans to provide a more detailed update within 12 months.

The ACMD also discussed a request by the Home Office for the experts to review the use of the stimulant khat.

The herbal substance is mainly chewed in fresh leaf form by Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities in the UK in a bid to promote alertness and relaxation.

Last reviewed by the council in 2005, khat was the subject of new Home Office research which suggested that although occasional use was widely seen as socially acceptable, frequent and heavy use needed to be addressed. This prompted drugs minister James Brokenshire to ask the ACMD to carry out the study.

Council members expressed concerns that a review into cocaine use - to which the ACMD had already committed itself - could be delayed because of the khat review, arguing that the substance did not affect nearly as many people in the UK as cocaine.

But representatives of the Somali community who attended the meeting appealed to the council to consider khat as a serious issue affecting health and society.

Muna Hassan, 26, from Forest Gate, east London, told the meeting her brother Saeed, 24, became seriously ill four years ago after a year of chewing khat and has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Saeed was a university student at the time with "high prospects of life ahead of him" but has spent the last four years "in and out of hospital" because he used what he thought was a "harmless" substance, according to Miss Hassan.

Recovered khat addict Abukar Awale, 39, from Westminster, appealed to the Government to legislate the drug.

"We're sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said. "We would like khat to be treated as a drug like other European countries."

Prof Iversen said it was important to hear a range of opinions from within the community when the review gets under way and invited the audience members to contribute to that process.

The 2005 report reviewed scientific evidence about the pharmacology of khat, which contains a naturally-occurring amphetamine-like substance called cathinone.

Although cathinone itself is illegal, the shrub from which it can be extracted is not, the meeting was told.

In addition, evidence suggested Heathrow airport was being used as a port to transport khat from East African to other countries where it is illegal, such as the US.

The report concluded that chewing khat was an "important part of the cultural activity" of the communities and said making it illegal would be "very disruptive" to them.

Prof Iversen said: "We now have to deal with the much more difficult question of just how much harm is this activity doing to local communities.

"It's going to be quite a major undertaking.

"We will have to engage directly with these user groups."

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