When senior government ministers announced a £148 million package to “cut drugs crime” in England and Wales on Wednesday, it was accompanied by some clichéd drug war spiel.
Made up of £80 million for drug treatment, £40 million for the policing of county lines drug gangs and £28 million targeted at five hard-hit areas, including Blackpool and Norwich, the government press release said the money would “protect people from the scourge of illegal drugs”.
Clearly wary of the “junkies don’t deserve a penny” brigade, ministers took the same approach that successive governments have for decades: justify spending cash to treat drug addiction under the banner of “cutting drug crime”. Not only is this line more appealing to Middle England than “we’re helping some of the most socially excluded people in the country”, it also conveniently avoids acknowledging why so many citizens are living these kind of lives in the first place.
Doubling down, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the money was being spent “so that people can live their lives knowing their family, community and country is safe”, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to “cut the head off the snake” of drug gangs.
In Scotland, there was a marked difference in tone when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced a drug policy package on Wednesday – £250 million on drug treatment, over five years – in a country with one of the worst drug death rates in the world.
Sturgeon didn’t talk about cutting the heads off snakes, or attempt to lay all the blame on dealers; instead, she was apologetic and talked about saving lives. “Anyone who ends up losing their life as a result of drug addiction is not just failed at the time of their death – in most cases, they will have been failed repeatedly throughout their whole lives,” she said.
“The fact is all of these people, and those who died in years gone by, were in some way failed by us. Responsibility for that rests, first and foremost, with government. We will find the ways to stop this happening. Doing so requires a national mission to end what is currently a national disgrace.”
Strong stuff from Sturgeon. And despite all the dated messaging from Patel and Johnson, the £148 million pledged by the government is a belated, but vital cash injection. The £80 million for drug treatment over the next year represents the biggest increase in funding for the sector in 15 years – and it’s desperately needed. Over the last five years, government spending on drug misuse for adults has fallen by 27 percent, from £556 million in 2014/15 to £405 million in 2019/20. As the amount spent on helping those with addictions has fallen, drug deaths have soared to record levels in England and Wales – as they have in Scotland – and this is partly due to underfunded treatment services.
Of course, £80 million is not enough to turn things around. Dame Carol Black, who is conducting a review into government drug policy, told ministers that £900 million over three years would be needed for drug treatment if it was serious about reducing drug crime. However, it is thought that the £80 million could be just a stop-gap payment, and that more funding for drug treatment will be announced later this year as part of a delayed government spending review.
Oliver Standing is director of Collective Voice, a national alliance of drug and alcohol treatment charities, and has been in discussions with the government about treatment cash. He said the £80 million will serve as a “practical life raft for the field” until a potential “substantial multi-year settlement for treatment” is announced in the autumn.
While additional funding for treatment will be welcomed, analysts have pointed out that the current package puts too much impetus on county lines drug dealing and the overblown links between the drugs market and violence.
As Dame Black outlined in her first drugs report, the bulk of drug-related crime is not about drug gang violence, its shoplifting and other petty crimes committed by some of the country’s estimated 313,000 frequent crack and heroin users. More than a third of people in prison are there due to crimes relating to drug use, and many are inside for back to back shoplifting offences, committed in order to fund their drug addiction. Despite what media, police and the government say, homicides linked to the drug trade are rare in the UK.
With that in mind, the announcement of £40 million, on top of an existing £25 million, to combat county lines drug gangs – whose presence is now exaggerated by police forces and the media, who label almost any drug selling as such – has a whiff of both grandstanding and utter futility.
We know that the drug trade is incredibly resilient and adaptable in the face of policing efforts. As Dame Black wrote in her report, government interventions to restrict supply have had limited success: “Even if [the police] were sufficiently resourced it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in drug supply, given the resilience and flexibility of illicit drug markets.”
Jack Spicer, a criminologist specialising in county lines at the University of West England, said the government needed to focus on root causes of drug crime rather than chasing down a never-ending conveyor belt of young drug sellers and drug outfits.
“Given how frequently it’s referred to in the announcement, it’s clear that the government is continuing to rely heavily on the construction of the county lines phenomenon to justify and guide their responses to drugs,” he said. “The Home Office seems to be involved in an amplification process, where they target the problem through extra resources, get some ‘results’ in the form of arrests and seizures, and this is then used to justify further targeting and further resources.
“History tells that the idea that the police are going to eliminate county lines drug markets with some extra funding is fanciful. This wasn’t possible even under the strictest of lockdown conditions last year. Investing more of the announced resources into drug treatment is far better placed to reduce drug harms. If the government really want to try and reduce county lines drug markets and the involvement of young people, it needs to start seriously addressing the gaping chasm of inequality that exists in this country.”
And that’s the crux of the matter. Of course the police need to keep on taking out the most violent and exploitative characters in the drug trade, but the government needs to elevate its mindset from an “all guns blazing, tough on crime” PR opportunity to one that will have some real bite and actually slow down the constant stream of drug crime.
If it really wants to address drug crime, and the cycle of damage around addicted users, damaged families and exploited young sellers, the government first needs to focus an intense beam of energy and money on drug treatment, and then must start looking at the wider societal problems that got people into drugs in the first place.
“Drug treatment services are just part of a Holy Trinity in attempting to break the link between drugs and crime,” said Harry Shapiro, Director of DrugWise and author of the forthcoming Fierce Chemistry: A Hundred Years of UK Drug Wars. “Decent housing and access to comprehensive mental health services are equally important.”