Drugs agencies have welcomed the government’s extra cash for its
new anti-drugs initiative, but are not impressed by the rhetoric
that has accompanied it. Mark Hunter reports.
When 15,000 people marched through the streets of Glasgow
earlier this month in an attempt to drive drug dealers from the
city, the government must have seen the demonstration as a clear
endorsement of the principles behind its latest Communities Against
Indeed, when chancellor Gordon Brown, who spoke at the Glasgow
march, announced the new initiative in Manchester a few days later,
he laid great emphasis on the ability of communities to “draw
strength from each other as we organise against the dealer and the
“It is time to build on the best in our communities to drive out
the worst in our communities,” he thundered.
Supporting the gung-ho rhetoric was a £300 million package
of measures designed to help local communities mobilise themselves
against the scourge of drugs. Some £220 million was promised
to help “disrupt local drug markets and drug-related crime”.
Another £50 million will be used to accelerate the drug
testing programme within the criminal justice system; £15
million will go to drug action teams, and there’s even £5
million aimed at footballers and other sports stars to act as role
models to steer young people away from drug misuse.
However, reading through this list again, one thing does seem
startlingly conspicuous by its absence.
Nowhere amid the promises for high visibility policing,
neighbourhood wardens, improved CCTV and truancy sweeps, is there
any mention of drug users themselves. It is an omission that is
causing concern among drugs support specialists who, while
welcoming the extra finances, fear that the government’s eagerness
to crack down on drug-related crime, may be causing it to ignore
the one group of people most directly affected by drugs.
According to Mark McPherson, an operations manager at the drug
user support charity Turning Point, an imbalance in favour of law
and order is likely to have only short-term benefits.
“There’s a danger that if you concentrate too much on reducing
supply and not enough on reducing demand then you’re not going to
have any great long-term effect on the problem,” he says. “So even
if you do raid a house, arrest the dealers and seize a load of
crack, the users will just move four roads down.”
The solution, says McPherson, is to ensure that law and order
measures are introduced in tandem with policies that help
regenerate drugs-ravaged communities and reintegrate drug users
into mainstream society.
“Don’t get me wrong, any additional money to fund drugs projects
is good news, but it should not just be a way of funding policing
through the back door. We should be investing in the regeneration
and economy of local communities. We need to look at these
communities and ask what it is that will make them feel safe. And
in doing this there is a real need for treatment services.”
To be fair the government has introduced a number of initiatives
to improve drug treatment and one of the stated aims of drug tsar
Keith Hellawell’s current 10-year plan is to double the number of
drug misusers in treatment.
The new National Treatment Agency will aim to raise the
standards of drug treatment services throughout the country and the
recent announcement of “mini-tsar” posts should help the local
provision of treatment services.
McPherson does not deny that the government has increased
investment in treatment of drug problems and that “there are a lot
of excellent initiatives out there”. But he points out that the
workload of most of these treatment programmes has increased
dramatically in recent years and many are already working at full
capacity. One of the reasons for this is the much-welcomed move to
link punishment for drug-related crimes with treatment for
“The arrest referral service is a fantastic way of proactively
targeting people who would never otherwise seek help from a drug
treatment service,” says McPherson. “But it creates a huge workload
for programmes that are already working at capacity. The result is
that addicts, facing a six-month waiting list to receive a
prescription for methadone, very quickly resort to street dealers
and to crime to fuel their habit.
“This is someone who is going to need a fix within hours of
being released by the police,” he adds. “So of course they go and
steal another car stereo.”
This workload is likely to increase even further once the
£50 million promised to accelerate the drug-testing programme
begins to take effect. If this happens without a corresponding
increase in treatment capacity it could result in more and more
addicts on longer and longer waiting lists.
McPherson is also wary of the government’s emphasis on
communities taking direct action to purge themselves of
“One problem with this approach is that the communities where
drug problems are really wreaking havoc are not in a position to do
anything about it. People feel intimidated, disempowered and may
have chaotic addiction problems themselves or are supporting family
members with drug problems. If it was as simple as stepping out of
your door one morning and dealing with it then they would have
already done that.”
Harry Shapiro, director of communications at national drugs
agency Drugscope, also has concerns about communities taking the
law into their own hands.
“One thing that concerns us is the rhetoric that is being used,”
he says. “There’s a danger of creating hysteria within communities
– it’s almost as if we are going down the name-and-shame path.”
This is a disturbing prospect for anybody involved in the social
care of drug users. Given the irrational and wildly inaccurate
targeting of recent vigilante action against paedophiles, the idea
of baying mobs descending on drug treatment centres does not bear
For, as Shapiro points out, the targets of any community action
against drugs dealers are likely to range from some of the most
vulnerable people in society to some of the most dangerous.
“At the lowest level a lot of small-scale dealers are also users
themselves and these are the people who are going to be first in
the firing line. At the other end of the scale you are talking
about very dangerous people with access to firearms. Is the
government really encouraging communities to take these people