Misguided morality is denying help to drug addicts

Published by The Times (2nd September, 2019)

Iain Duncan Smith has been highlighting the horrors of addiction. The former Tory leader pointed out that ten times more people died from drugs than knife crime over the past year, underlining the need for more focus on rehabilitation and spending on treatment to break a vicious circle that hurts the poor hardest.

He is right. The statistics on drug fatalities expose a scar on society, with latest figures showing another leap to record levels. Britain is responsible for one in three such deaths in Europe. This reveals the dismal failure of our prohibitionist stance. Duncan Smith’s intervention followed the latest report from his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), seeking a new national strategy. This is desperately needed, yet typically he absolved himself of any guilt for six years sitting round the cabinet table as local authority budgets were cut, along with the treatment services they provided.

His double standards go far deeper. Duncan Smith talked again of ‘abstinence’, which is promoted ‘unashamedly’ in the new report. The CSJ has pushed abstinence-based policies for 12 years over prescription of heroin or methadone, which for all its flaws allows users to stabilise lives and interact with local services.

This approach was taken up by the Tories and adopted by the coalition with dire consequences. ‘They kept peddling abstinence — it was so depressing,’ a Lib Dem minister in that government said. The legacy is a surge in drug-related deaths.

Ironically, Duncan Smith helped to wreck a focus on harm reduction introduced by Margaret Thatcher in response to the explosion of HIV in the Eighties, when she was persuaded to back needle exchange schemes to stop the disease’s spread. This was effective in reducing infection rates among drug users to among the lowest in the world.

Now look again at those figures. Fatalities have almost doubled since 2011, when a toxic combination of austerity and abstinence-based policies began to drive up the death toll. New drugs came on the market, potencies soared and the Trainspotting generation started dying in unprecedented numbers. Now the Tories will not even allow Scotland, suffering the worst drug crisis in Europe, to follow the lead of other nations in introducing safe injecting rooms.

Many of these deaths are the result of misguided state morality usurping harm reduction. Yet the leading voice of such lethal policies seems hooked on denial.

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