Expert Comment: The new drug strategy may not be as bad as it looks

Olivia Miller
Professor Alex Stevens
Professor Alex Stevens by University of Kent

With the Government publishing its 10-year Drugs Strategy today (6 December 2021), Alex Stevens, Professor in Criminal Justice at the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR), explains how behind the tough-sounding rhetoric in the strategy, there may be investment in life-saving treatment. He said:

‘The new government strategy on illicit drugs will be published today with a blizzard of eye-catching announcements. According to reports, people who use drugs will be subjected to more testing, more punishment, and more stigmatisation. They will be tested on arrest. They will be barred from driving or travelling abroad. They will be punished if they refuse treatment. And students face an ‘advertising blitz’ to steer them away from drugs. None of these initiatives are backed by evidence. Ministers boast about their success in shutting down hundreds of phone lines that are used to deal drugs, but present no evidence that this has had any effect in reducing drug supply or related harms.

‘Hiding behind this tough talk there is hope of new funding for vital public health measures. Drug-related deaths have risen to record levels every year since 2012, while spending on drug treatment has been repeatedly cut. Things have got so bad that Dame Carol Black, invited by Sajid Javid to review the drug treatment system, declared it ‘not fit for purpose’ earlier this year. She made 32 recommendations for improvement, of which the most striking was substantial new spending on treatment and recovery. To the surprise of many who saw the unfunded promises of previous drug strategies, the new one may come with this new money. Some £300 million will be spent on law enforcement measures of doubtful efficacy. On Radio 4 this morning (6 December), Kit Malthouse – the minister who led on the strategy – said £530 million will be spent on treatment. This would go a long way to reversing the cuts that have been made to treatment budgets since 2014. It may even be enough to cover the first three years of Dame Carol’s five-year plan.

‘This possible shift towards a public health approach to drugs comes with a promise to divert more drug-related offenders to treatment instead of prison. It remains to be seen whether this will actually reduce the use of prison, or – like previous purported alternatives – just suck more people into the net of penal control. The idea of forcing people into treatment by threatening them with harsher punishment if they refuse is deeply unethical. And there is still no acknowledgement of the valuable role that supervised injecting facilities could play in helping the most marginalised people in our communities to avoid death by overdose.

‘In presenting the strategy, ministers may have felt the need to present a false balance between the carrot of big new spending on treatment services and the stick of punishment and shaming. The fact that the stick does not work may not be relevant to the politics of drugs in the UK. At least, this time, the new strategy could come with money to rebuild a treatment system that was broken by austerity.’

Professor Alex Stevens has worked on issues of drugs, crime and public health in the voluntary sector, as an academic researcher and as an adviser to the UK government. He was a member of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs from 2014 to 2019, and President of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy from 2015 to 2019.

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