Campaigners attack Government's new flagship drugs strategy as 'same failed old recipe'

Delayed initiative rounded on by people campaigning to reduce harm caused by illegal drugs

Jon Di Paolo
Friday 14 July 2017 17:34 BST
Deaths involving heroin and/or morphine have doubled over three years to reach record levels
Deaths involving heroin and/or morphine have doubled over three years to reach record levels (PA)

The Government’s latest policy relaunch aimed at tackling illegal drugs amid soaring death rates has been heavily criticised by campaigners who say it fails to get to grips with the problem.

The UK Drug Strategy 2017 was announced by the Home Office as its flagship initiative to reduce use of illicit substances and improve addiction recovery rates.

Drug misuse has been falling in recent years, figures show. Some 2.7 million 16- to 59-year-olds in England and Wales took illegal drugs in 2015-16, down from 10.5 per cent a decade ago.

However, the latest available figures also reveal deaths are soaring. Some 3,674 drug poisoning deaths involving legal and illegal substances were recorded in 2015, up from 3,346 in 2014 and the most since comparable records began in 1993. Cocaine deaths reached an all-time high in 2015, and deaths involving heroin and/or morphine doubled over three years to reach record levels.

The new Home Office strategy identifies new emergent threats, including drugs previously known as legal highs such as Spice – the drug blamed for causing a “zombie plague” in city centres, which is now causing havoc in the prison system.

Chemsex drugs like crystal meth, GHB/GBL and mephedrone, which are taken before or during sex to boost the experience, are also identified as a growing problem among users who expose themselves to blood-borne infections and viruses, according to the strategy.

It promises “targeted interventions” and close collaboration between sexual health services and other relevant groups, as well as more help for addicts to find houses and jobs and better controls at borders.

However, it immediately came under fire from people and organisations campaigning to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

Some argued that by refusing to countenance any sort of decriminalisation it could never make any serious dent in a trade controlled by organised criminals at an estimated cost to society of £10.7bn a year.

Models in countries such as Portugal were cited, where decriminalising drugs and treating their use as a health issue has reduced consumption, addiction and funding for criminals.

Martin Powell, head of campaigns at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “No wonder the Government didn’t consult on this strategy. It won’t protect young people and communities because it is the same failed old recipe of criminalisation and under-funding that has lead to record numbers of vulnerable people dying.

“It dismisses out of hand or doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of measures proven to save lives and reduce crime – from decriminalising people who use drugs, to safer drug consumption rooms and heroin prescribing. This is despite such policies being recommended by the Government’s own expert advisory body – who are thanked in the introduction.”

Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose 15-year-old daughter, Martha, died of an accidental ecstasy overdose in 2013, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that drugs should be regulated and labelled properly, and if they had been four years ago her daughter – who unknowingly took a pill containing enough ecstasy for five people – would still be alive today.

“As a mother who lost her only child, I just want them to listen. I want them to get the message out and to save lives. Drugs are dangerous but they are made even more dangerous [when they are] controlled by gangsters,” she said.

“It’s time for the Government to use an evidence-based approach to this rather than just regurgitating the same outdated and misleading messages.”

​Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug law experts Release, told HuffPost UK the Government should be “ashamed” of its new strategy.

“Recovery from drugs, defined as being drug-free, is still at the core of the Government’s approach, in our view this approach has contributed to people dying,” she said.

“If the Government really wanted to save lives then this strategy was an opportunity to do so, they could have endorsed heroin prescribing, drug consumption rooms, pill testing, and other harm reduction interventions that protect health and communities.”

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “The drugs strategy won’t work. It totally fails to address a key problem: treating drug dependence as a criminal justice issue rather than a health one.”

However, Home Office minister Sarah Newton told Today she had looked at arguments for decriminalisation but “when you look at all the other available evidence, we just don’t agree”.

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