Drug addiction is a significant problem in the UK. The NHS Statistics on Drug Misuse, England 2020 report, published in January 2021, reveals that 2019/20 saw 16,994 hospital admissions for poisonings related to drug misuse, and 7,027 hospital admissions for behavioural and mental disorders caused by drug misuse.While these figures represent a slight fall on those from 2018/19, that’s not to say that they aren’t a cause for concern. The UK’s drug problem, in fact, is so serious that in January 2021, the government announced a £148m package to reduce drug crime.
However, is this approach focused too much on the criminal element, and not enough on helping the general population who misuse illegal substances to get the treatment and support they require?
What is the aim of the government’s new funding package?
- The government’s £148m package is split into three key areas:
£40m for law enforcement. This funding will help authorities to identify and dismantle criminal gangs, and reduce the quantity of illegal substances being transported via county lines.
- £28m for Project ADDER. Standing for Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery, Project ADDER will bring together police, health services, local councils and other parties in five hard-hit areas of the UK in a new, intensive approach to drug misuse. The aim is to combine “targeted and tougher policing with enhanced treatment and recovery services”.
- £80m for England-wide drug treatment services. This funding will increase the number of treatment places available for both criminals leaving prison, and those who have been given community sentences.
The Project ADDER and drug treatment services funding was described by the government as its “largest investment in drugs treatment and support in 15 years”. It’s a positive step, and a sign that the government is keen to reduce the UK’s drug problem as much as it can. But is targeting those leaving prison and criminals serving community sentences enough?
Is a crime-focused approach the best solution?
While the amount of money the government has committed to investing in tackling drug crime is not insignificant, the Home Secretary and Health Secretary are taking an approach that is very much crime-focused. Their January 2021 announcement included a quote from Matt Hancock stating that “addiction and crime are inextricably linked”. He further added, “to truly break the cycle we must make sure people can access the help they need to get their lives back on track for good”.
The issue here is that the misuse of illegal substances is by no means confined to hardened criminals. In the US, a recent webinar for lawyers on the subject of substance misuse and mental health attracted around 700 attorneys - a number that the organisers believe was higher as a result of increased substance misuse due to the pandemic, with such webinars normally only seeing 100 or so attend.
Here in the UK, we are on the verge of a prescription opioid crisis. Codeine, tramadol and oxycodone prescriptions are on the rise - and while they are effective pain relievers, users can easily become dependent on their effects.
The government’s approach to tackling drug crime appears to be based purely on drug misuse by known criminals - so what about those who do not fall into the category of criminals being released from prison, or those embarking on a community sentence?
We know from our own drug testing work that many businesses are worried about drug use in the workplace - especially in industries hiring workers in safety-sensitive roles. Our own data reveals that MDMA, cocaine, codeine and cannabis are the substances most commonly detected in workplace drug testing programmes - a vital tool in an employer’s armoury to maintain their duty of care to their workers.
However, it is also in family law cases where stamping out drug misuse is vital - cases where the health and wellbeing of parents is crucial for a safe and happy family setting. What the government must realise is that it is not just convicted criminals that should benefit from government-funded treatment services, but the ever-growing numbers of people in the general population who are struggling with dependency on illegal or prescription drugs.
A more inclusive solution
The most recent government surveys show that drug use is high: within the previous year, 9.4% of those in England and Wales, 12% of those in Scotland and 5.9% of people in Northern Ireland stated that they had used any drug. Worryingly, these surveys also reveal that drug use amongst 15 year olds has increased over the last five years.
Many of these will be people who do not fall into the categories supported by the governments most recent cash injection - those being released from prison or serving community service sentences. So how can we ensure that the general population is getting the treatment and support they need - and also that individuals are deterred from starting to use illegal substances?
For those in employment, many workplaces are doing their bit by introducing workplace drug and alcohol policies - including both random testing and testing at particular times, such as pre-employment and after workplace accidents. In family law, those involved in custody cases are often required to undergo regular hair drug testing, which establishes patterns of drug use or abstinence over several months.
In situations like these, the possibility of having to undertake a highly accurate and reliable drug test can prove a successful deterrent to those considering dabbling in illegal substances - and can also help incentivise those who regularly misuse drugs to reduce (and eventually quit) their usage.
By focusing purely on treatment services for convicted criminals, the government runs the risk of demonising those with a drug addiction. Could focusing on the benefits to health, behaviour, work and social relationships be a better solution to drug misuse than focusing on its criminality?
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