We live in the age of the image. Just how important the image and its impact can be was aptly illustrated by the harrowing pictures of Rachel Whitear that appeared last week. Rachel was a 21-year-old student who became addicted to heroin and died of an overdose in a grotty bedsit. Her parents released photographs of her body, which was found three days after her death.
They were horrifying. They depicted Rachel as she was discovered: in a crouching position, a syringe still gripped by her stiffening fingers. As readers looked at their morning papers, the messages came through loud and clear: Say no to drugs! This could happen to anyone! Just because you're a nice, middle-class girl doesn't mean you too couldn't end up in the grip of drugs!
To decide to share that final, ghastly image of your child with the nation, in the hope that it might save another person's life, seems the bravest act of any family in such circumstances. It's a hope that I, as someone who works with drug users, share. The charity I head, Turning Point, provides drug misuse services to more than 64,000 individuals around the country.
But hope is not enough in the age of the image. People are not changed by what they see or even by what they feel. We are bombarded by so many images all the time that reactions and feelings are reduced, and we turn numb.
What affects us can no longer be predicted. The image of Cathy Come Home led to the establishment of Shelter and inspired the creation of the Homelessness Acts. But the image of Leah Betts in a coma after taking ecstasy – another photograph given to the press by grieving parents – did nothing to stop the continued consumption of half a million ecstasy tablets every weekend by people who might know the risks but are still willing to take a chance.
Young people may well look at pictures of Rachel or Leah and think, "Yeah, I need to stop" or even "I had better not start". But one thought lasts a fleeting moment. Contrast that with the hundreds of drug-culture magazines, television, and the talk of more "fashionable" friends, and one realises how little lasting impact shocking pictures have.
The images of Rachel and Leah tell one shocking story, and that is that we fail to be shocked enough to understand that the answers to the drug misuse problem cannot be based on outrage, sorrow or regret. It has to be based on clear thinking and the facts. First, we need to be clear about how big the problem of drugs has become. The Government's own figures suggest that, apart from ecstasy takers, there are another 244,000 illegal drug misusers spread across heroin, cannabis, cocaine and crack. My own work makes me believe that the figure is even higher than that.
Problematic drug use has risen inexorably over the last 40 years, including the use of heroin. Cannabis has been tried by up to 40 per cent of people aged between 16 and 25, and cocaine is now taken by people on council estates as well as "fashionable" people. Drug acceptability among the young, educated middle-classes has reached the point where the writer Toby Young openly admitted his use of the drug without fear for his livelihood or reputation. The journalist Decca Aitkenhead has just published a book in which she tells of her search for the perfect "E". "It" Girls appear on prime-time television fashionably wasted before and (some say) after treatment. Cannabis is now smoked by members of the Royal Family whose futures will not be blighted by a criminal record. Ecstasy, a class-A drug, is now taken by too many people to arrest even in the most draconian of police-state clampdowns.
We need more direct ways of reaching drug abusers. In the same week as the pictures of Rachel Whitear were printed, the Audit Commission published a report into the management of drug treatment services. It was one of the best argued and clearest reviews of drug treatment I have read in a long time. It might have had few images, but it is truly shocking reading. The commission estimates that this country spends £3.5bn on drugs. Of this amount 20 per cent goes on treatment and education and £7m is spent on prevention. The difficulty is not that the Government fails to spend money on the drugs challenge. (In fact the amount spent on treatment services has gone up by 71 per cent). The problem is how it spends its money. The drugs-spend cake is indeed a big cake; it's just not cut the right way.
The national treatment agency has shown that for every £1 spent on treatment, £3 is saved on criminal justice. The answer is indeed treatment, but treatment is also the problem. If someone addicted to heroin, crack, cocaine or (as is more often the case these days) all three has to wait a month for treatment they just will not go. If an addict gets pushed from service to service because they have complex mental health, housing and skills problems, they will simply not turn up. If the response to a drug misuser's cry for help is moral indignation, there is an alternative in oblivion. If treatment is to work, then drug users have to given speedy access to it.
The Audit Commission report could not be clearer. People are taking drugs, some of them need help, the help is often not available or well planned and we pay little attention to prevention and meaningful education. The solution is even clearer. Treatment is required in as many forms as necessary to meet individual need. We need that treatment to be safe and accessible when and where it is needed, because not only does treatment save money, it saves lives. Those of us who work in treatment and support services for drug users must be clear and focused in our approach. And that means we have to get the Government to wake up to the reality. Drugs misuse is growing, and treatment needs to be freed from the red tape which limits its effectiveness.
There is another issue that must be addressed urgently, and that is alcohol. We hear plenty about the dangers of substance abuse. But too little is heard about drink and the risks to young people. Last week Alcohol Concern published the results of findings that indicated that we spend another £3bn on alcohol misuse. For every Rachel or Leah there are a dozen lives lost to alcohol in accidents or excessive consumption. Or just plain, self-destructive addiction.
Little attention is paid to alcohol abuse, but the same problems apply to it as to drug abuse. People who need help the most often have to wait the longest for not very good treatment. Yet we as a nation could take effective action. The NHS needs to train nurses and doctors to identify alcohol abusers and work with them.
It also needs to develop working relationships with organisations that provide the treatment that is often not available at hospitals and clinics. The images of Rachel Whitear were used to tell a story about illegal heroin. Plenty of other parents could have produced equally harrowing pictures of their dead offspring. And even more will do so unless we reconsider our approach not only to illegal drugs but to the socially acceptable drug of alcohol as well.
Victor Adebowale is the chief executive of Turning Point, the drink and drugs charityReuse content