Examining addiction in the UK
Addiction Kevin told me he took heroin for the first time when he was 19. ‘‘I was offered some at a party and my work mates had gone home, so I thought, why not?’’
This was the beginning of a path that saw him become addicted to drugs and alcohol for the next 25 years, 15 of them living on the streets.
In the course of that time he lost his job, his family, and saw his girlfriend die in an alley from an overdose. Twenty-seven years on, Kevin thinks of himself as one of the lucky ones. “After years of trying, I finally got into rehab. It changed my life.” Eighteen months on from entering rehab, Kevin now has his own car, business, pays taxes, and most importantly to him, is a valued member of his community.
For too many addicts, however, this experience is a rare one. Addiction destroys lives, families and communities. This is why the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) inquiry into poverty, Breakthrough Britain II, is examining addiction in the UK. We know, for example, there are around 300,000 heroin and/or crack addicts in England alone. Yet despite the cost of continued addiction, the only intervention the majority receive is a 15 minute chat and a regular dose of a legal heroin-substitute like methadone — the aim of which is to reduce crime rather than help kick the habit for good.
No Quick Fix
The CSJ’s report, No Quick Fix, found that despite billions spent over the past ten years there have been nearly 30,000 drug-related deaths and a rising number of people are ‘parked’ on substitutes. A fatally unambitious system has seen 150,000 people now prescribed a substitute, and of those, one in three have been on their prescription for more than four years and one in twenty for more than 10. Nearly all are unemployed and many are costing the NHS and criminal justice system — illicit drugs are estimated to cost the UK £15 billion a year.
The CSJ first highlighted these problems in 2007 and demonstrated that while harm reduction services, such as needle exchanges, had reduced the harm of drugs, there was little to help people get clean and transform their lives. This message got through to many and the Drugs Strategy 2010 contained the ambition for addicts to achieve recovery, free from all drugs and alcohol.
Seven years on, there is still much to do. Even those lucky enough to get rehab, and who come out clean but vulnerable, often face being put into ‘wet’ accommodation with people still taking drugs and drinking. Not only is this setting people up to fail, it wastes scarce resources.
Worryingly, a much larger section of society (1.6 million in England) is also trapped in dependence by alcohol. Alcohol-related deaths have doubled since 1991 and liver disease is now one of the ‘Big Five Killers’ and the only one which is increasing. Indeed, alcohol-related admissions to hospital have doubled in a decade and will surpass 1.5 million per year by 2015.
These problems are now in danger of increasing by the rise of ‘legal highs’ which threaten to ensnare a new generation in substance abuse — much like the heroin wave ravaged young people in the 1980s.
And so, this summer, it is these dangers and entrenched problems to which Breakthrough Britain II will seek to provide some solutions. We have assembled an expert Working Group, many of whom have overcome addiction themselves and know how to help others kick the habit and gain employment. The CSJ would welcome any submissions to our review to help end this tragic waste of human potential.
Rupert Oldham-Reid, Centre for Social Justice