The government has announced an additional £80 million funding for drug treatment services in England, in an attempt to tackle drug related crime. While it is good news that these vital services will receive a much needed cashboost, this ‘package’ is like attempting to heal a broken leg with a plaster. 

This funding comes as part of a wider £148 million investment, which aims ‘to cut crime and protect people from the scourge of illegal drugs’. From this investment ‘package’ £80 million will be given to drug treatment services in England; £40 million will be directed to law enforcement ‘to tackle county lines and drugs supply’; £28 million will be invested into ADDER (a pilot project running in Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Hastings, Norwich and Swansea Bay); and £2.5 million is to be invested into post release community care for prisoners. 

First of all, it’s important to consider the wider aims of this investment package. The government aims to tackle drug related crime, by focusing on cutting the supply of drugs, and providing treatment for those experiencing problematic drug use. To some extent it’s understandable that they have attempted to target both the supply and demand of drugs. But when does the time come to admit that our current drug laws aren’t working? 

The drug market is in the hands of organised crime groups (OCG), and it’s highly unlikely that £40 million will change that. 50 years of the war on drugs has taught us that organised crime groups run incredibly dynamic operations, which continue to evolve alongside police intervention. While it is beyond the scope of this piece, it’s important to consider whether OCG can be eliminated without wider reforms to our drug laws. At Volteface we are always exploring how cannabis can be regulated to ensure that demand is taken away from OCG. 

It is undeniable that these OCG are taking advantage of young and vulnerable people. But it’s also important that we question what specifically makes these people vulnerable in the first place?

The link between poverty and crime is clear, this notion was reinforced by The Black report, and consistently backed up by The National Crime Agency. Not once in the press release does it mention poverty and deprivation as driving factors behind the recruitment of young people into county lines operations, yet surely it’s the most obvious? Meanwhile, the government has announced cuts to universal credit, and attempts to cut free school meals, despite increasing numbers of families falling into poverty. This highlights both the government’s inability to comprehend the level of poverty in this country, and the detrimental impact that poverty has on people’s lives. 

The root causes of drug related crime are incredibly complex. At Volteface we have long advocated for a nuanced discussion around preventing drug related harm; which innately includes questions on how vulnerable groups can best be supported, and how preventable drug deaths can be avoided through policy reform. While it’s encouraging to see some investment in this area, £80million simply isn’t enough.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson states this cash boost “represents the largest increase in drug treatment funding for 15 years”, £80 million barely begins to replenish funding which has been cut from the treatment sector over the past 10 years. Moreover, since this announcement leaked emails between tsar (the senior official responsible for tackling drug related harm) and MP’s reveal that the level of investment needed for the treatment sector is around £900m. This means the sector will need to receive more than 11 instalments of these ‘investment packages’ until it is able to fully function, and support the complex needs of the most vulnerable people in society. 

In February last year The Black report estimated the economic impact of drug related harm to be around £19 billion per year. This report highlighted that while treatment is the responsibility of local authorities, government cuts to local budgets have been detrimental to the facilitation of drug treatment services. Noting that in some areas expenditure for treatment services had been cut by 40%. Moreover, these findings also highlighted the long term impact of austerity measures to the overall functioning of drug treatment services. Noting there has been a loss of ‘skills, expertises and capacity from the sector’. It’s concluded that the treatment sector urgently requires investment, but warns that funding boosts alone cannot build the services up to meet demand, and effectively support vulnerable groups. Though states that ‘recovery is about more than just treatment’, thereby acknowledging the nuances of this issue, for example the importance of long term stable housing. 

In 2019 the number of drug related deaths (DRD) hit a record high, with 3493 DRD. Many drug reform advocates are concerned about the likely increase we will see in 2020. Since 2019 the nation has faced a range of lockdown restrictions, it is without a doubt that these restrictions have impacted the most vulnerable in society. While the data is not yet there to confirm this, anyone who understands the undeniable link between mental health, deprivation and substance misuse will agree that now more than ever people’s lives are at risk. Drug treatment services were already struggling to meet demand before the pandemic, covid has amplified these existing pressures. Without substantial funding the drug treatment sector will continue to face challenges which ultimately may cost lives. 

In Scotland the government has announced a £250m pledge to drug treatment services, this is part of a 5 year plan to increase investment into drug treatment services by £50m each year. Drug related harm and death in Scotland has been increasing at an alarming rate over the past 10 years. In 2019 there were 1,264 DRDs, which is the highest number on record, with 77 more deaths than in 2018. Like the UK, the impact of lockdown restrictions on deprivation, security and ultimately mental health is of huge concern. This pledge is welcomed by advocates who have long pressured the Scottish government to address the shocking level of drug related harm in the country. 

As many advocates in this space would agree, investment into drug treatment services in England and Scotland is crucial, and long overdue. While it’s clear that drug treatment services in England will require further investment, these investment initiatives from the British and Scottish governments show that campaigning efforts are working. It’s important that we view incremental change as a positive outcome, while continuing to accelerate reform through constructive campaigning. 

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