Taking away benefits from heroin users won’t solve anything

It was reported today that Ian Duncan Smith is threatening to stop heroin addicts from being able to claim incapacity benefits.  About a hundred of my patients are heroin users and they are all signed off work. IDS pointed out that it was unfair that hardworking tax payers were paying for the addictions of others. This may well be true but is an attempt to force heroin users in to gainful employment really a viable option?

We recently advertised for an admin assistant at our surgery. It is a low paid, unskilled, part time position that required no previous experience and no great physical exertion. Such is the nature of the times; we had over 60 applicants, most of whom were greatly over qualified for the post. None of the applicants were intravenous heroin users, but if they were we wouldn’t have short listed them. If we wouldn’t consider employing a heroin user, who does Mr. Smith think will? With the exception of the odd ailing rock star, I am yet to hear of a gainfully employed injecting heroin addict.

Heroin is an awful all-consuming drug that destroys the personality of the person behind the habit. The next fix becomes more important to the user than food, shelter and most sadly the people who care about them most. It is not a lifestyle that can easily coexist with a 9-5 job. IDS is very welcome to switch all of my heroin addicts from incapacity benefit to job seekers allowance, but it would simply be an expensive and time consuming PR exercise that led people from one handout to another.

If he chose to take it one step further and remove all their benefits, the result would be an almighty Hurrah from some, but would simply mean a large number of the most vulnerable members of our society being made homeless and being pushed further in to crime, prostitution and begging as they looked for alternative ways to feed their habits. The extra burden placed on to the criminal justice system would almost certainly end up costing far more than the relatively meager handouts that heroin users currently receive in the form of incapacity benefits.

Our local drug and rehab services are quite good but although most of my patients who use heroin are actively enrolled within substance misuse services, very few will successfully turn their lives around. Treating heroin addicts punitively with prison sentences doesn’t seem to work either, so it would appear to me better to try and work out why people fall in to heroin addiction in the first place. Most of us experiment with drugs to some level or another in our youth, but even during my own sustained and enthusiastic period of adolescent experimentation, I never got anywhere near a place where injecting a syringe full of heroin in to my arm jumped out as being a good idea.

Most, although by no means all of my patients who use heroin seem to take those extra few steps in to harder drugs and full scale addiction after fairly miserable starts in life. Heroin is often an escape from the grim realities of life and amongst my patients, child abuse and growing up in care seem to pop up time and time again as the most damaging experiences addicts are trying to escape from.

As a doctor I try not to get carried away with the emotion and morality of what I see as it interferes with the practical aspect of the job. Many of my patients have self inflicted injuries and illnesses and whether they are due to heroin, alcohol, smoking, or falling off horses, me offering extra indignation benefits no one. In my eyes politicians have no option but to take the same approach. I am dealing with addiction on an individual basis whilst they have to consider it on a more national scale, but ultimately the realities are the same.

Heroin dependence exists and is hugely detrimental to everyone. Vitriolic sound bites about the cost to taxpayers might make favorable headlines in the right wing media, but it doesn’t make the problem go away. There will always be victims who fall prey to heroin, but how about trying to prevent young vulnerable people from plunging in to addiction, rather than simply vilifying them once they have.

Source: www.blogs.independent.co.uk   23rd May 2012

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