New Drug Strategy: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

by Ella Walsh

Following much media speculation last weekend, the government has published its highly anticipated 10-year drug strategy.

This comes at a time when questions are being asked about the government’s own use of illicit drugs, with cocaine recently discovered in a toilet near Boris Johnson’s Parliamentary office. The Government are using the launch to send a strong ‘anti-drugs’ message at a societal level, whilst sniffer dogs have been deployed in the Palace of Westminster in an attempt to quash the embarrassing stories of drug use on the Parliamentary estate. 

Publishing a new drugs strategy is always a tricky business for the government. The moralistic nature of the issue invokes strong responses from the general public, which in turn makes any drug strategy announcement a juicy story for a mainstream media, intent on harvesting rage clicks.

To evaluate the effectiveness of any drugs strategy it is vital to step away from the headlines, forewords and press releases, and instead critically examine the actual proposals. Below are our key takeaways from the new strategy, and a rundown of the good, bad and the somewhat ugly in terms of its recommendations. 

The overarching aims of this strategy

  • To breakdown the drug supply.
  • To deliver a world class drug treatment and recovery system.
  • Achieve a shift in demand for drugs.
  • Invest in local multi-agency partnerships, to achieve successful outcomes. 

Specific targets for 2025

  • Prevent 1000 drug related deaths.
  • Expand treatment capacity, aiming to create 54,500 places in treatment. 
  • Prevent 750,000 crimes.
  • Close 2000 county line operations. 
  • Cause major disruption to organised crime groups. 

Main takeaways

  • The government set to invest £3 billion for the first three years of this 10 year strategy. Of which £780 million will fund drug treatment services, and £300 million will fund law enforcement operations.
  • The strategy signals a much welcomed shift towards a health lead approach to addiction. Stating to follow the evidence, having taken up 31 of 32.  recommendations set out in part 2 of the Dame Black report.
  • Tackling the supply of drugs remains a priority, despite the questionable efficiency of  these ‘crackdown’ operations.
  • This strategy goes further than its predecessor by targeting investment to expand the diversionary initiative, project ADDER.
  • Fails to acknowledge the evidence base for safe consumption facilities, as a vital harm reduction measure that will save lives.
  • As expected there were no proposals for legislative change, and decriminalisation is completely off the table.
  • The strategy also lacked any mention or consideration of cannabis reform, despite being cited as the most commonly used recreational drug.
  • The strategy aims to ‘tackle’ recreational drug use but seems centred on stigmatisation of this type of use, accompanied with the threat of harsher punishments as deterrence.

The good…

Investment for drug treatment and recovery services. 

The most promising aspect of the proposed strategy, and undoubtedly one of the most understated takeaways, is the £780 million to be invested in drug treatment services. While many are aware that this only begins to replenish what’s been stripped from treatment services under a decade of austerity measures, this is certainly a bright sign of hope worth celebrating. 

One key focus of this investment will be supporting the recovery of people with crack and heroin addictions, of which the government estimates is around 300,000 people. Central to this goal will be expanding the reach of treatment services for these groups, as well integrating a continuity of care with other services, such as mental health and social services.

A whole system approach to addiction. 

Importantly this strategy acknowledges that these groups often have multiple and complex needs, such as trauma and homelessness, alongside addiction. The strategy seems to be going much further than it’s predecessors in recognising the importance of a dynamic multi-agency facilitated approach to supporting recovery.

One aspect of this ‘whole system approach’ includes targeted investment into the diversionary initiative project ADDER. While the strategy shies away from using the terms diversion or divert, a central function of this initiative is the diversion of people who are addicted to drugs away from the criminal justice system. It is a very positive sign that the strategy is championing this scheme, which has already been implemented in some parts of the UK.

The bad… 

Evidence first, except where safe consumption and safe supply is concerned.

The strategy has claimed to put the evidence first, with regards to Dame Blacks recommendations for significant investment into treatment, and a long term plan to reduce drug related harm and deaths. However, it’s disappointing given the record number of lives being lost of drug related deaths, that the government has aspired to save only 1000 lives over the next 3 years. While it may be cynical, it’s also crucial that we ask whether far many more lives could be saved if the government were to re-consider backing other methods of harm reduction, such as safe consumption facilities and drug testing.

Still trying to break down the supply.

There is nothing new about the government’s proposed strategy to break down the supply of drugs; this has been a cornerstone feature of drug strategy in the UK for the past 50 years. Used throughout this section are politically and publicly favourable lines vowing to ‘secure the border’, and ‘restrict the upstream flow’. 

This ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric serves mostly to reassure the public that the government is taking action on organised crime groups and the illicit trade of drugs. The reality, however, is that these ‘crackdowns’ have historically failed to stop the supply of drugs, and instead risk fuelling further violence between crime groups. 

A key priority of this part of the strategy is tackling and dismantling county lines operations. Again, this is not a new addition to the strategy, nor is the victimisation and exploitation of children by organised crime groups a new problem. The strategy lacks any mention of poverty as driver behind why some young people are at risk of being victims of county lines. As long as we fail to mention that the complexities and adversities faced by at-risk youth relates so closely with marginalisation, then we will fail to adequately prevent their victimisation. 

No hope for drug reform.

While this was to be expected, it’s disappointing that there are no signs of any plans to make legislative changes to our existing drug laws. The prospect of decriminalisation has been completely ruled out in this strategy, stating that it would ‘risk increasing drug use’.

Moreover, despite cannabis being cited as more widely used than cocaine by recreational users, there was no mention of how legalisation and regulation could help to address harms caused by buying cannabis from the illicit market, whilst also undermining organised crime groups.

The ugly…

A drug free society.

It’s disappointing that the government remain committed to promoting this utopian idea of a drug free society, if such has ever existed. One main ambition of this strategy is to reduce drug usage rate to a historic low, and achieve a generational shift in drug use. Much of the focus here seems to be around changing attitudes towards drug use, however, historically this has only ever led to further stigmatisation of people who use drugs. 

In order to achieve this generational shift they are investing in education tailored to help build ‘resilience’  amongst young people, especially those ‘at risk’. Educating young people around drugs is something that we advocate for, and believe that education is a vital harm reduction tool. However, it’s important that the education delivered to young people does something drastically different than the classic ‘just say no’ and ‘drugs are bad’. If the government truly wants to reduce the harms relating to drug use among young people education needs to be tailored through a harm reduction framework, not through prohibitionist rhetoric. 

Scapegoating people who use drugs. 

As featured in the media hype around ‘middle-class ‘drug users, the strategy is also seeking to address the recreational drug market, and people who use drugs for recreation. The strategy estimates that the recreational cocaine market is worth £2 billion, and people who use drugs for recreation are fuelling drug related crimes, and funding criminal enterprises. 

In order to ‘tackle’ recreational drug use, they are aiming to improve methods for identifying this type of drug use. This is one part of the strategy which is completely unfathomable, categorising people based on the perceived type of drug use may seem possible in theory, but the reality stands that there is often a fine line between recreational drug use, and problematic drug use. Along with this narrow distinction is also the consideration of whether drug use may be medical purposes. For example, where people with medical conditions, unable to access a legal prescription, are self-medicating with cannabis from the illicit market. 

Moreover, this pledge to enforce tougher penalties in an attempt to deter people from using drugs for recreation is simply not rooted in evidence. Deterrence as an aim of the criminal justice system is ineffective, hence why crime rates and prison populations continue to grow, alongside rising lengths of sentences.

Behind the headlines, beyond the strategy.

The headlines around abstinence-based recovery for prisoners was of particular concern, as many in the space recognise that abstinence isn’t the only road to recovery, and for some it can be particularly harmful. Although it’s worth noting that abstinence-based recovery is only mentioned once in the strategy, and is cited as an example of the ‘range of recovery treatments’ to be offered to prisoners.

While seeing the same repetitive anti-drug rhetoric is tiresome for reformists, it’s clear that beyond the ‘tough on crime’ media frenzy there is a subtle shift towards a more health-centred approach in this strategy. Most symbolic of this shift the level of investment into drug treatment and recovery services will be more than double set for law enforcement operations.

There is also already much speculation around what this ‘world class drug treatment and recovery system’ will look like, and whether it will be able to meet the diverse, and complex needs of people who use the services. Given the government’s track record with these types of deliverables it’s important that we remain critical, and stay engaged within the space to ensure that they are investing in drug treatment and recovery practises we know work. 

This article was written by Content Officer Ella Walsh, tweets @snoop_ella, & Director Paul North, tweets @Paul__North. 

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