An independent review has urged the UK government to spend £500 million on tackling drug addiction or face spiralling crime and deaths.
Government cuts have left the UK’s creaking drug treatment system “on its knees” at a time of record numbers of drug deaths, according to the review into how to best deal with Britain’s spiralling drug problem.
The report, by Dame Carol Black, said the current lack of action on tackling drug related harm was “intolerable” and that the government had failed to provide adequate care for drug users because of the stigma attached to addiction.
It called for an extra £552 million over five years to shore up a treatment system that is “not fit for purpose”.
By wholeheartedly tackling drug addiction – which disproportionately impacts deprived communities in the north of England – the government could more likely achieve its key goals of crime reduction and “levelling up” society, said Black.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who commissioned the report when he was Home Secretary, said a new cross-government drugs unit – the Joint Combating Drugs Unit – would be set up in response to Black’s damning report.
The review said crucial planks of a drug treatment system – such as psychosocial interventions, residential treatment and inpatient detox – have all been starved of funding, during a period of increased government austerity measures. It called for more investment in treatment services for young people and said there should be a comprehensive programme of education for children about the dangers of drugs and the drug trade.
Her review points out that increasing the spending on tackling drug addiction makes economic sense, because for each £1 spent on treatment, £4 is saved on the costs to health, prison, law enforcement and emergency services.
“Government faces an unavoidable choice: invest in tackling the problem or keep paying for the consequences,” Black said in the report. She warned that a post-pandemic recession would increase drug addiction and deaths.
“For problem drug users, including an estimated 300,000 opiate and crack users, we cannot expect a reduction in demand without reversing the recent disinvestment in treatment and recovery services,” the review said. “To achieve and sustain recovery people need, alongside treatment, somewhere safe to live and something meaningful to do (a job, education or training). Too many people are in and out of treatment for years or even decades, without turning their lives around for good.”
But the review said preventing and treating drug addiction could not be done effectively without huge improvements to current provision for homelessness, mental health, housing and post-prison welfare.
Dame Carol emphasised the close links between mental health and drug dependency and said they must be treated together. It said expanding the number of qualified drug treatment staff, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers was crucial to building an effective drug treatment system.
The review is focused on reducing the demand that helps fuel the UK’s £5 billion a year crack and heroin trade, which makes up half the entire £10 billion drug trade. But it also acknowledged the rise in powder cocaine use in the UK and advised that new ways of persuading cocaine users to stop using the product should be investigated.
Javid said the government would "look closely" at the recommendations and publish an initial response shortly. The review is the second of two reports into the UK’s drug problem by Dame Carol, a health expert. The previous report focused on the UK drug trade. In January the government announced a £148m package to tackle drug harms, including £28 million targeted at five hard-hit areas, including Blackpool and Norwich.
Some experts called for caution, due to the timing of the review’s demands for an extra £552 million in public spending. Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University, said that while the increase in funding for tackling drugs is badly needed after a decade of government cuts, “it is uncertain whether this will be prioritised by a Treasury counting the costs of COVID-19”.
But he commended the report’s broad perspective on drug use, “recognising that those who experience the most harms are also likely to have experienced other challenges in their life such as childhood adversity, been let down by the education system, or having unmet mental health and housing needs”.
Mark Moody, Chief Executive of Change Grow Live (CGL), the UK’s largest provider of drug treatment services, described the review’s recommendations as a “once-in-a-generation change in drug treatment” that would help not just drug users but the communities they live in.