The Bigger Picture on the Drugs Bill
By Maria Ahmed
The Drugs Bill, published in December 2004, has attracted widespread criticism among drugs charities who claim it is a piece of “political window-dressing” that fails to promote improved care and proper resourcing for services.
What is in the Drugs Bill?
The bill contains proposals for a ‘tough package’ of measures aimed at breaking the link between drug addiction and crime, and getting more people into treatment, including:
• A new drug intervention order to run alongside antisocial behaviour orders to address drug misuse by people committing antisocial acts
• New powers for police to order ultrasounds or x-rays of drug dealers who swallow their drugs to conceal the evidence
• New powers for police to test for class A drugs on arrest and require those who test positive to attend an assessment and follow-up appointment
• Making drug dealing near a school, or using children as couriers for drugs or drug-related money, an aggravating factor in sentencing
• Introducing a new presumption that those caught with more drugs than reasonable for personal use intend to supply drugs, which carries tougher penalties
• Tougher powers to deal with drug dealers who swallow their drugs or hide them in body cavities – the police would be able to order a drug or ultrasound and magistrate would be able to remand suspected swallowers in custody for up to eight days
• Dealing with the open selling of magic mushrooms by clarifying the law that fresh mushrooms, as well as prepared ones, are illegal
A question of agenda
The main criticism of the bill is its “over-emphasis” on criminal justice rather than social welfare and health, according to leading drugs charities.
Drugs think-tank Transform predict the bill will be prioritised in the run-up to the next general election, tipped for May 2005, due to the political importance of the law and order agenda.
Transform’s information officer Steve Rolles said: “The bill is largely populist electioneering, ill-thought out, with a miserable lack of consultation in the drugs field.”
Other charities say that the bill does not address the need to provide treatment to drug users in the community, who have not committed a crime and who can be prevented from criminal activity in the future by getting the right treatment.
Outlining their position, Drugscope and Turning Point said: “The war on drugs is too easily interpreted as a war on drug users. Instead, tackling substance misuse must be central to the broader social welfare and health agenda that addresses and matches the complex and different needs of many problem drug users.”
A question of treatment
While drugs charities and opposition parties agree that diverting more addicts into treatment is important, they point out that services are “all too often” unavailable.
Both Drugscope and Turning Point claim the government needs to improve treatment programmes to retain people within the system and increase the effectiveness of services.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of Drugscope, said: “Increased support and help for drug misusers is welcome – but it must be more effective – ensuring that the right person is placed on the right programmes.”
Mark Oaten, shadow Home Secretary for the Liberal Democrats said the government’s proposals would not work unless more was done to provide proper treatment in prisons.
“The majority of offenders who go in with a drug habit come out unchanged. The government must ensure that prisons are properly resourced to break the cycle of drug-related crime,” he said.
Drugs charities say that forcing people into treatment through the criminal justice system will not be effective, as they predict many will drop out.
A recent Audit Commission report found that one third of drug misusers drop out of treatment within the first 12 weeks.
Think-tank Transform also believe that measures in the Bill fail to take into account the effectiveness of treatment.
Steve Rolle from Transform said: “We are concerned that the primary aim of this enforced ‘treatment’ should be crime reduction rather than the health and well being of the drug user. No health indicators at all are mentioned in the cost benefit analysis [of the bill], a blinkered and perverse way of evaluating”.
Turning Point and Drugscope blame the existing system for failing to address needs beyond substance misuse such as housing, mental health, education and employment.
Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, said: “The most crucial thing a Drugs Bill could do is ensure services are able to meet more than one need. People are complex and you can’t expect them to overcome dependency if they’re still struggling to find a house or don’t have the support they need to get back into work.”
Charities are calling for the government to give greater priority to commissioning treatment services in combination with longer-term support and better after-care.
Drugscope and Turning Point highlight an “urgent” need for harm reduction as a way to bridging users into treatment.
They say that the bill should include the introduction of safer injecting areas where users can go without fear of arrest and access practical advice and dispose of needles without harm to the public.
The charities also suggest greater use of heroin prescribing, which is currently available to the most chaotic users, as a “useful tool” to stabilise heroin users within a strict harm reduction agenda.
A question of workforce
Drugs charities say there should be greater investment in training and encouraging GPs to work with drug misusers.
They highlight a shortage of appropriately trained GPs and the lack of a co-ordinated infrastructure to support them, and point to an estimated shortage of at least 3,000 drug staff with specialist knowledge.
Drugscope and Turning Point want the government to put a workforce strategy in place to attract new staff and ensure career development.
They are also calling for more partnerships between GPs and specialist agencies, including voluntary sector agencies, psychiatrists and community pharamacists.
The charities said: “There is a clear need for the government to invest in improving drug misusers access to shared care arrangements and promoting better models of good practice.”
The bill is being fast-tracked through parliament and is due to go for a second reading in January 2005. However, drugs charities are hoping to “torpedo” the bill in the House of Lords and force through some amendments.