Can the Government stay in denial any longer? by Kathy Gyngell

The annual United Nations World Drug Report published yesterday confirmed my analysis of the available data which shows the UK to have the worst drugs problem in Europe. Yet a month ago when the The Phoney War on Drugs was published by the CPS Jacqui Smith and the Home Office went into denial mode.
While repeating Labour’s worn out justification that “overall drug use is lower than when Labour took office”, and that this is “a clear sign that our strategy is working” – exactly the myth that my paper debunked – she resolutely turned her back on the facts of rising drug deaths, rising ‘problem’ drug use (now put by the UN at 400,000, some 70,000 higher than 2006 measures) rising prescribed methadone dependency and the doubling of cocaine consumption.
Even before the latest UN report figures were released new data in the last month on drugs related damage and a new analyses of seizure data confirmed my thesis. The Independent on Sunday revealed a 67% increase in the number of babies born suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms in the past 10 years even though these statistics (of opiate addicted babies) exclude those newborns with problems due to their mother’s exposure to cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis.
Yesterday’s UN Report repeated my comparative data analysis which showed that the UK is the largest market for cocaine and that consumption has more than doubled in recent years and is higher than anywhere else in Europe.
Martin Blakebrough, the CEO of the drug charity Kaleidoscope said in response that, “The numbers exploded probably around five years ago and they’ve continued to rise because it’s become more mainstream .. it has a kudos or glamour not associated with other substances”. Meanwhile drugs counsellors confirm that teenagers are moving from cannabis to cocaine as young as 14 and that use by children as young as 11 is rising. It is something that the government’s preferred treatment intervention, methadone prescribing, can do nothing about.
SOCA’s claim that this consumption rise is despite cocaine prices reaching record levels due to their interdiction must however be treated with extreme scepticism. These are not street prices and reflect currency exchange rate changes as I pointed out a few weeks ago.
The truth is that the explosion in cocaine use mirrors a period in which UK cocaine quantity seizures have dropped, as have prices, while the market has expanded. The hard evidence I detailed in my paper points to failing enforcement competence and commitment on the part of the government and SOCA. Furthermore publication this month of an analysis of Scottish heroin seizures by Professor Neil McKeagney confirmed that these are at record lows.
So, surely now the Government and its various drugs satellites and quangos must face the truth of the uniquely appalling social problem we face in Britain and the extent to which their misguided policy has contributed to it. They must finally give up trying to justify themselves by one selective measure of drugs use prevalence picked from the British Crime Survey and the English Schools survey and accept the fact that this does not even begin to measure the extent of drugs related harm. Even less does it measure policy efficacy.
Nowhere is this claim less credible than in their resort to these ‘official’ measures of declining cannabis use to ‘prove’ that adolescent drug use and addiction are under control. Neither of these surveys reach the part of the population that drugs reach most. Fewer schools sampled each year chose to cooperate. The number of truanting, absentee and excluded children continues to rise. The Government apparently remains convinced that if schoolchildren’s cannabis use is dropping that this is sufficient unto the day. The ‘if’ remains quite big.
The reality on the streets however is one of a youth alcohol and drugs crisis that Ray Lewis illustrated powerfully in response to my paper. The number in need of drugs treatment continues to rise (alongside hospital admissions); demand outpaces provision while the ‘treatment’ on offer is totally inadequate.
One thin and poorly nourished boy I met last week told me that on his estate he knew no one, neither adolescent nor adult, who did not use drugs. And just a few weeks ago when I asked a health visitor working in inner London how many of the 400 families on her books had a drug problem, she countered defensively, “don’t ask, it is a fact of life, we have to accept it.” That is the trouble. This is the official attitude to drug use and everything that goes with it is: ‘There is nothing you can do’.
But it is the Government’s performance-driven, methadone ‘treatment’ drugs policy that is maintaining these lifestyles rather than changing them. All the kids do, one adolescent addiction counsellor told me, is use ‘community treatment’ on offer as part of this lifestyle. They are offered nothing to make them change or to enable such a change. Treatment ‘in the community’ leaves them with the same older adults still in their lives and subject to the same environment. They may go through several methadone ‘detoxes’ with the aim of ‘bringing down’ their illicit drug use, but this is often even without a plan to reduce the methadone use. There is no other ambition. “You can get up to 40mls of methadone a day if you are under 16”, one girl confidently told me. “All it does”, she said, “is to keep everything going – to maintain everything else”.
She was one of the handful of lucky ones. Two three month sessions at Middlegate, the only dedicated residential adolescent addiction centre in the country, had changed her life. A heroin addict at 14, moved from one inadequate foster home to another, finding herself on the street and in dealers flats, missing out on years of her education, she had, thanks to one enlightened and persistent social worker who forced the local authority to stump up the cash, been sent to Middlegate. This summer she has been sitting four academic AS levels.
The staff at Middlegate despair at the years of wasted public money pumped into ‘community treatment’ when they know what they can achieve with the most desperate of cases. What the kids need, they say, is rescuing and lifting out of their environments – not a sequence of social workers and drug workers operating with their government defined agendas to ‘rebuild families’ at whatever the cost yet incapable of providing the long term commitment required.
Yet the National Treatment Agency, wedded to this ‘treatment in the community’ agenda for all adolescents, refuses to ring fence any funds for Middlegate to ensure this life changing programme can continue, let alone be replicated anywhere else.
Responding to The Phoney War on Drugs one highly respected addiction psychiatrist commented that I had not emphasised sufficiently “the huge waste of resource brought about by the NTA’s enthusiasm to allow managerialism to take over the field.” He is right. The NTA’s approach to treatment is now so entrenched in a complex, resource hungry but inflexible bureaucracy that it is standing in the way of the revolution in rehabilitation that is required. Nothing less than a major diversion of resources in the direction of rehabilitation and away from people processing plus a clearly conditional and contractual approach to drug treatment will work.
The government would do well now, before inflicting more damage on our society, to face the facts and acknowledge that their approach to ‘treatment’ and their drugs policy has failed abysmally.
Source: 25.06.2009


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