Treating the real problem
By Kevin Ovenden
LAST WEEK scientists finally discovered the cause of a mystery illness which has killed or injured dozens of injecting heroin users, most of them from Scotland, over the past two months. The 32 drug users who had died were as much victims of the lunatic official anti-drugs policy as they were of the gangrene-causing bug which had contaminated the heroin.
If they had been prescribed heroin in a controlled way, not one of them would have died from injecting impure black market drugs. The official policy in Britain was for GPs to prescribe drugs for addicts until the early 1970s. It did not lead to an increase in drug use. It allowed doctors to control people's addiction. But newspaper scare stories sent a panic through the Tory government of the time.
They dumped these proven methods of dealing with drugs for a War on Drugs. Both the Tories and New Labour have hoped locking up users and telling people Just Say No would solve the problem. The result has been a disaster, particularly in Scotland. Problem drug use rocketed on working class housing schemes in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee in the early 1980s as recession destroyed people's hopes of a decent life.
It spread to the most deprived urban and rural parts of Scotland. As the Scottish Drugs Forum, which links drugs advice and research agencies, said in its submission to a Scottish Parliamentary committee earlier this year: "It is abundantly clear that disadvantaged areas with poor housing, poor amenities and high levels of unemployment remain overwhelmingly the areas where drug problems are concentrated. Sadly, the link between drug problems and our most deprived communities has not always been recognised by politicians."
The Tories refused to make that connection. Their policies increased the misery that leads people to take drugs which risk their health. At the same time they ordered the police to crack down on drug users.
Drug use and the availability of drugs soared. There are now 30,000 problem drug users in Scotland. They are almost all poor. A study in Glasgow found that drug-related emergency hospital admissions were 200 times more likely to come from poor areas than rich ones.
The Scottish Parliament's Social Inclusion Committee is now in the middle of looking at drug policy across the country. It does admit the link between poverty and drug use. But New Labour, which runs the Scottish Executive with the Liberal Democrats, has shown no sign of being prepared to overturn Tory drugs policy.
At least �150 million is spent on dealing with drug use in Scotland every year. Just one tenth of that goes on treatment and rehabilitation services. The bulk goes on police enforcement. Yet every non-governmental study shows that treatment programmes are far more effective than police crack downs. The Rand Foundation in the US looked at the effect of different programmes from a purely financial point of view.
It found that every dollar spent on treatment services saved $7.50 in other social costs, such as prison bills, fewer drug-related burglaries and less acute health expenditure. However, every dollar spent on police enforcement provided a return of only 50 cents. More and more establishment figures are now speaking out against repressive drug laws.
They include the bishop of Edinburgh, and the ultra-respectable police foundation that called for the scaling down of penalties for possession of cannabis three months ago.
The doctors' BMA, backed up by scientific research, says that cannabis is one of the least toxic drugs. Tobacco, by contrast, kills 120,000 people a year in Britain. Yet over 80,000 people were convicted in Britain last year for possession of cannabis.
If government ministers really want to tackle problem drug use it would mean bringing the treatment of addicts into the NHS, massively redistributing wealth to wipe out poverty and abandoning the failed attempts at prohibition. New Labour will not offer that. So we are likely to get essentially the old policy with some lip service to the social pressures people face. The hypocrisy can remain intact at the price of hundreds more needless deaths.