Socialist Worker

Treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one

Sadie Robinson looks at a new programme to give heroin users diamorphine which aims to help people escape addiction

Issue No. 2676

Discarded needles - taking street drugs runs a higher risk of contamination

Discarded needles - taking street drugs runs a higher risk of contamination (Pic: Mike/Flickr)

A small number of heroin users in Middlesbrough will be given free doses of the drug under a new scheme.

Fifteen users in the Teesside town will receive diamorphine—medical grade heroin—twice a day. The plan aims to cut crime, keep addicts safer and help them escape the drug.

It isn’t a new idea. Some 280 people in Britain were prescribed diamorphine in 2017-18. It was the main form of treatment for addicts in Britain until 1967.

For some, taking drugs to overcome addiction may sound nonsensical. Yet when diamorphine was standard practice, the number of known heroin users rarely rose above 1,000. When governments embraced a “war on drugs” instead, heroin use exploded.

Phasing out prescriptions left the supply of heroin to organised crime. It fed an epidemic as users tried to get others addicted so they could sell drugs to fund their own habit.

In 2017/18 141,189 heroin addicts were engaged with health services in England and Wales.

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Heroin destroys lives. But criminalising addicts is more likely to trap them in addiction. Being tainted as a criminal leaves people more isolated.

Many end up committing other crimes to get money for drugs—and are jailed as a result. After prison, it’s harder to get a job and a home.

Many addicts end up homeless or driven into prostitution.

The Pew Charitable Trusts said last year that nearly 300,000 people were in jail across the US for drug violations.

This compares to less than 25,000 in 1980. Prisoners are also serving longer terms than in previous years.


Pew found “no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and reported drug use, drug overdose deaths and drug arrests”.

Diamorphine is prescribed medically all over the world—so the drug itself isn’t completely unsafe. Criminalising drugs is dangerous. People who take street heroin are more likely to face contaminated drugs or dirty needles, and contract diseases such as HIV or hepatitis C.

And drug laws give the cops another reason to target black people with stop and searches.

So criminalising drugs doesn’t cut drug use or keep people safer. Treatments involving monitored doses is more effective at doing both.

Drug abuse is a health issue, not a crime. People should be given support to recover.

And we also need to tackle the reasons for drug abuse. People take drugs for different reasons.

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But often they are looking for a release from the stress, depression or boredom in their lives.

And heroin use has soared in areas where working class lives and jobs have been destroyed, such as former mining areas.

Drug abuse reflects what’s wrong with the society we live in. Those at the top who claim to care about it are hypocrites.

There was a 16 percent rise in drug-related deaths in 2018. People don’t get the support they need because governments deem it too costly.


Under Home Office regulation diamorphine must be provided in freeze-dried ampoules that cost £9 or £10 for 100g.

This means prescribing it costs £14,000 a year per patient. Meanwhile drug services are cut.

Drugs that do immense harm, such as alcohol and tobacco, are legal—and enormously profitable.

And the rich and their lackeys in government are free to take drugs as long as they look suitably apologetic afterwards.

The answer isn’t drugs for all. It’s to get a system where people don’t need drugs in order to get through the day or to bring a bit of excitement into their lives.

Scapegoating drug users distracts from the real problem—a capitalist system that fails the vast majority of people.

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