Growing evidence suggests that drug habits in the UK are slowly changing, with misuse of prescription painkillers becoming more prevalent even though overall drug use continues to decline.
Meanwhile, New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) - 'legal highs' like Spice that mimic the effect of existing drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine - continue to be widely available and widely popular.
But is drug testing in the UK, and particularly in family courts, reflecting these trends?
To best serve their clients, family lawyers and social workers need to be aware of how drugs habits are changing to ensure they are testing for the right substances.
Changing drug habits
Mounting evidence indicates that misuse of prescription drugs and NPS is a growing problem, which would suggest that drug testing in the UK also needs to adapt.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales 2017/18 looks at trends in illicit drug use among adults aged 16-59. While cannabis and cocaine are still the most commonly used drugs in the UK, the survey shows that 7% of adults admitted to taking a prescription painkiller that hadn't been prescribed to them, although they claimed to be taking it for 'medical reasons.'
A much smaller proportion (0.2%) admitted to misusing prescription painkillers solely for the feeling or experience it gave them.
Interestingly, the report highlighted increases in the use of several other less common drugs. Ketamine usage doubled year-on-year from 0.4% in 2016/17 to 0.8% in 2017/18 among 16-59-year-olds. This equates to an additional 141,000 people using the drug, the highest estimate of ketamine usage since measurement of the drug began in 2006/7.
The use of New Psychoactive Substances remained unchanged year-on-year at 0.4%; however, the report notes that there is evidence to suggest that use of NPS is particularly high in prisons and among the homeless community. As these groups aren't included in the survey, it's likely that the data 'underestimates the overall prevalence of NPS across the total population.'
While misuse of NPS remains comparatively low compared to misuse of prescription drugs, the Global Drug Survey 2018, which includes data from 130,000 respondents from 40 countries, shows that the UK ranks fifth in the world for NPS usage. The report’s authors also state that misuse of NPS and opioids like acetyl fentanyl and carfentanyl is likely to increase in future years.
An opioid epidemic
But do these stats tell the full story? The United States is said to be suffering an opioid epidemic, with more than 2m Americans dependent on prescription painkillers. While the situation in the UK is not comparable to the US, there are signs that opioid addiction is slowly becoming more prevalent.
In March this year, the BBC reported on claims that the NHS was fuelling the rise in opioid addiction because doctors were too quick to prescribe painkillers. It found that GPs in England wrote 23.8m opioid-based painkiller prescriptions in 2017, some 10m more than in 2007.
The BBC's report also shows that the number of people dying from opioid-related drug misuse in England and Wales reached a record high in 2017. Partly as a result of this increase, Public Health England recently announced an investigation into the growing problem of addiction to prescription painkillers and medicines to treat anxiety and insomnia.
It's likely that the increased use of NPS and prescription drugs will begin to be felt in family court cases. You don't have to look far for anecdotal evidence of addicts getting caught in a downward spiral that ends up costing them everything.
For example, the Evening Standard's special report into opioid misuse includes an interview with a businessman who ended up becoming estranged from his wife and children due to his addiction to painkillers.
A separate report from the Guardian into the use of Spice, a common NPS, quotes one drugs charity worker as saying: "It destroys families, not just the individual."
Drug testing in the UK
As the nation’s drug habits evolve, so must the way that family lawyers and social workers test for substance abuse. Hair testing provides the most effective method of checking whether a client has been misusing drugs or alcohol, as traces will last for up to 12 months.
Hair typically grows at a rate of 1cm each month, making it possible to identify which drugs have been used within a reliable timeframe. While other methods of drug testing are available, hair testing is less invasive, gives a longer window of detection and provides more sensitive results.
However, it's not currently possible to perform a blanket test for all illegal drugs. Laboratories need to know what drugs to test for in order to find evidence of misuse.
That's why it's important for family lawyers and social workers to get as much information as possible about a client's possible drug use and be aware of the increasing prevalence of new psychoactive substances and prescription painkillers.
Only by staying alert to the UK’s changing drug habits can family lawyers ensure they are testing for the right substances, which will give them the best chance of getting an accurate picture of their client’s drug use.
To learn more about hair testing, download our Complete Guide to Hair Drug and Alcohol Testing for Social Work.
Available under Creative Commons from Eric Norris.
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