This article was originally published on Talking Drugs.
The Home Office has demonstrated yet again that, when it comes to drug policy, it is more concerned with political posturing than public health.
On Monday, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) published the findings of a study into the recent increase in drug-related deaths in the UK. The annual number of opioid-related deaths in England rose by 58 percent between 2012 and 2015. Shockingly, deaths linked specifically to heroin and morphine increased by 107 per cent during the same period.
In the report, the ACMD recommends that the Home Office counter these rising deaths with a range of measures that reduce the harms of drug use, including the introduction of medically-supervised drug consumption clinics, and by funding heroin assisted treatment (HAT). HAT allows people who are dependent on heroin, and have found alternative opioid substitution therapy to be ineffective, to be prescribed safe quantities of it.
The Home Office issued an immediate response, part of which stated:
“Drugs can cause untold harm and this government is acting to reduce their devastating impact. […] This government has no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms but recovery will remain at the heart of our approach. We are grateful to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for their advice and will respond in due course.”
In other words, the Home Office will continue its uncompromising and deadly approach of pushing people to become drug-free; an approach that lowers the likelihood of people encountering harm reduction services, and therefore increases the chance of death.
“Death,” the ACMD explains, “is the most serious harm related to drug use”.
The fact that they must explain this to the Home Office may be the most damning indictment of UK drug policy in the whole report.
One must admire the ACMD’s resilience.
The group of health professionals, academics, and criminal justice experts undertake study after study, write report after report, and implore the Home Office to implement evidence-based, harm-reducing, life-saving drug policies. And then the Home Office ignores them, changes nothing, and drug-related deaths rise, ad infinitum.
If the Home Secretary truly intends to reduce the harms of drug use, a good starting point would be for her to stop perpetuating policies that kill people who use drugs.
While the government is “acting” to reduce the impact of drugs, the total number of drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales has reached the highest since records began, and there were 2,677 opioid-related deaths in the UK last year. Perhaps the Home Secretary should consider listening to experts who know how to reduce those figures.
Indeed, HAT and consumption clinics diverge most significantly from the Home Office’s traditional drug policies as these proposed initiatives involve treating people with addictions as human beings with a right to life, and because they’re rooted in evidence rather than empty rhetoric.
The effectiveness of HAT at reducing the harms of drug use is demonstrated daily by well-established programmes in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as by the results of a HAT trial in the UK.
Evidence shows that HAT reduces both the risk of fatal overdose and the spread of infectious diseases through needle-sharing. It is undeniable that HAT saves lives. It also has a broader societal benefit, even for those who do not use drugs, as it reduces the likelihood of someone buying heroin from the illegal market – thus putting a dent in organised crime and significantly reducing criminal activity.
Similarly, consumption clinics provide safe spaces and sterile equipment for people who use drugs, and they are staffed by health professionals to prevent fatal overdoses from occurring. They also provide mental and social care services to help people manage their addictions.
Perhaps the most convincing testament to drug consumption clinics – which can now be found in many parts of Europe and Canada – is that nobody has ever died from a heroin overdose in one.
Unfortunately, despite the mass of evidence in favour of both HAT and consumption clinics, it would be wishful thinking to expect their implementation in the UK.
The Home Office is regurgitating the same moralistic attitude towards drug policy that it has done for decades, regardless of which party has been in power: facts don’t matter, evidence is irrelevant, and experts are to be disregarded, if not scorned.
This approach – tried, tested, and failed in almost every country on earth – will inevitably lead to thousands more opioid-related deaths in the UK. As far as the Home Office is concerned, these mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters are mere collateral damage in their moral crusade.
Avinash Tharoor is the editor of Talking Drugs and policy and communications officer at Release. He has worked previously as a communications consultant for the Drug Policy Alliance and as a freelance journalist. Tweets @avinashtharoor