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Adrian Blair: A fresh approach to drugs policy

Blair_adrian Adrian Blair is research secretary to the Bow Group.

The way society treats hard drug addicts is expensive, ineffective, and ultimately indefensible.  As Research Secretary for the Bow Group, I’ve been on the lookout for some time for fresh, compelling ideas in this area.  The paper we published yesterday (Guardian story) by Humfrey Malins, CBE, MP - a respected Parliamentarian, but also a Deputy District Judge and Recorder of the Crown Court with long experience sentencing drug users - goes some way to providing them.

The PM’s own confidante, Lord Birt, estimates the total cost to the nation of “high harm” drug users as £24 billion annually.  Yet residential rehabilitation - probably the cheapest and most effective means to treat such people - is under-provided (just 1 bed for every 100 problematic drug users), and of the precious few beds available, up to half lie empty.

Essentially, a cured drug addict is far better for society than a “punished” one.  The current system fails all concerned, by neglecting the root causes of the problem.

> Cannabis is treated too leniently
Most problematic drug users start off on “softer” stuff.  By labelling cannabis as Class C, in addition to the harm done by the drug itself, the first step in the cycle of addiction is made far too easy.  Malins’ paper suggests a zero-tolerance approach to cannabis, together with compulsory testing of school pupils and re-classifying it as a Class B drug;

> Sentencing Methods Are Inadequate
Prison fails, as it doesn’t treat addiction, and drugs remain easily available.  The government’s Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs) have a 2-year re-offending rate of 78.1% (according to a Parliamentary Answer to Mr. Malins).  The introduction of “Custody Plus” sentencing is continually delayed due to lack of probation officers - the number of probation officers in the Greater London area has fallen by 6% in the last year. 

> Residential Rehabilitation Works
Residential Rehabilitation - where addicts are isolated from the causes of their addiction and the problem is treated - is the most effective way to minimise reoffending.  Although the government still doesn’t measure re-offending rates from residential rehab, evidence from Sweden and trials in the USA suggest lower re-offending rates.  Residential rehab is also cheap: figures in the Bow Group paper suggest an average weekly cost of £674 relative to £800 for a prison place.

> There are Insufficient Residential Rehab Beds
The paper estimates there are around 250,000 “problematic drug users” in England - people dependent on Class A drugs.  Around 100,000 rely on persistent crime to fund their habit.  Yet the Government admitted in a Parliamentary Answer to Mr. Malins that there are just 2,530 residential rehabilitation beds in England - about one for every 100 problematic drug users.

> Too Many Residential Rehab Beds Are Empty
Every provider contacted in researching the paper had considerable spare capacity.  The paper estimates that up to 50% of beds are empty in most of England’s 119 residential rehabilitation units.  This is caused by lack of referrals from Drug Action Teams, due to persistent underfunding and neglect of residential rehab by Local Authorities, Health Authorities, and the criminal justice system.  The government claims that the National Treatment Agency is receiving £50m funding for new beds; but the Bow Group findings show that under-use of existing beds is the core problem.  A representative quote from one London provider we contacted:  "Lots of residential rehab centres are concerned whether they can stay viable or not because they are not getting referrals.  The Government say they are spending much more money, but what is happening to it I simply do not know."

In sum, the costly cycle of crime and addiction will continue, unbroken, without a much tougher approach to cannabis, widespread use of sentencing that aims to cure and not just punish hard drug addicts, and radical expansion and improvement of drug rehabilitation.  Labour’s inexcusable failure to do any of this presents Conservatives with a rare opportunity to save money in the long-run, while doing the right thing for some of the most desperate people in society, not to mention their would-be victims.

Download a PDF copy of Humfrey Malins' paper.


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