In Focus news analysis on drugs policy

Organisations working with drug users are concerned that
anti-drugs policy may be about to shift towards law and order at
the expense of treatment, Sarah Wellard

The confirmation that David Blunkett, the new home secretary, is
to take over policy on drugs from the Cabinet Office is causing
concern among organisations working with drug users and their

Blunkett is known to take a tough line on drugs, in contrast to
the relatively liberal views of the former Cabinet enforcer, Mo
Mowlam. Commentators fear that the change may lead to greater
emphasis on law-and-order aspects of anti-drugs policy at the
expense of treatment and rehabilitation.

Hywel Sims, director of Adfam National, a charity supporting the
families and friends of drug users, is worried about a potential
hardening of policy against people who use drugs. “We would be
concerned about any attempt to demonise users,” he says. “It has a
vicious effect on families.”

Roger Howard, chief executive of Drugscope, adds: “We are
looking for reassurance that the crime agenda will not eclipse some
of the valuable health, education and prevention initiatives that
have been developed and co-ordinated across Whitehall.”

The switch of drugs policy to the Home Office reflects
ministers’ anxiety that their strategy for tackling drug
abuse is failing. There are estimated to be half a million heroin
users in the UK – a thousand-fold increase in 30 years. A survey
published last month from the London Arrest Referrals Monitoring
Database found that hard drug use among people in police custody is
reaching alarming levels, with 57 per cent admitting taking heroin
and 52 per cent crack cocaine in the previous month. Sixty per cent
of users were spending at least £200 a week on their habit,
with 29 per cent spending more than £500 a week.

It was also announced last week that the drugs tsar Keith
Hellawell has been asked to step down just one year into his new
three-year contract. He will take on a much-reduced role in the
Home Office of “tackling international drug trafficking on a
part-time basis”.

Hellawell was appointed with much fanfare when the Labour
government took office in 1997, but quickly fell victim to
Whitehall in-fighting. There were disputes about targets for
reducing consumption of heroin and other drugs, and clashes with
the Department of Health over treatment policy. His contract was
only renewed last summer after a personal appeal to the prime

Whether Blunkett will appoint a new anti-drugs co-ordinator to
take over from Hellawell is not yet clear. Mike Trace,
Hellawell’s deputy, is known to be highly regarded by
Blunkett and is perceived as having performed well in his role, but
he is believed to be looking to move outside government.

The Local Government Association (LGA) takes a more measured
view of the transfer to the Home Office of the lead on drugs
policy. Policy officer Noel Towe says: “I don’t think the
change to the Home Office is as significant as some make it out to
be. Our main concern is that the progress made by the Cabinet
Office in addressing departmentalism will go into reverse.”

Towe points out that the Home Office’s remit in relation
to drugs is already wider than the law and order agenda because it
houses the Drugs Prevention Advisory Service, which provides advice
and support to local drug action teams.

He also believes that Hellawell’s shift towards a broader
prevention strategy was needed to augment the individually focused,
harm-reduction approach. In April, the government announced a
£300 million package for local crime and disorder partnerships
aimed at helping communities tackle drugs and drug-related crime.
While some of this money will be spent on high-profile policing and
gadgetry such as closed circuit television, the main objective is
to build capacity in local communities to help them respond to
drugs – for example by enabling tenants’ associations to have
better control of estates.

However, critics point out that attempts to attack the supply of
drugs do little to deal with rising demand fuelled by rapidly
increasing numbers of drug users. In many parts of the country,
treatment is woefully inadequate. Heroin users referred for
methadone are having to wait as long as six months for their
prescription. And for many drug users, there is little prospect of
receiving any treatment unless they are already caught up in the
criminal justice system.

There are hopes that the National Treatment Agency, to be
launched later in the summer, will improve both the availability
and quality of treatment. Paul Hays, a chief probation officer in
south east London, is chief executive designate of the NTA and is
expected to take up his new post on 1 July. But the final remit for
the agency has yet to be agreed.

It is not yet clear, for example, whether alcohol abuse will
fall within its scope. Adfam’s Sims believes it is vital that
it does. He also wants the agency to adopt up-to-date treatment
models. “There’s been insufficient emphasis on designing
treatment for the rising numbers of users of cocaine and crack
cocaine,” he says.

Last summer’s spending review announcement of £480
million over three years for local drug action teams to purchase
treatment has also been widely welcomed. However, it risks being
derailed by difficulties in recruiting suitably skilled and
experienced staff.

Hellawell’s legacy then, as Drugscope’s Howard
points out, is new investment in treatment and prevention. But it
remains to be seen whether this will be enough to turn the tide
against spiralling drug abuse and drug-related crime.

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