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The Big Question: Are drug treatment programmes a waste of taxpayers' money?

Why are we asking this now? Does drug treatment serve any purpose? How has the Government reacted? Michael Savage asks The Big Question:

Why are we asking this now?

Because new statistics suggest that while more money is being thrown at drug treatment programmes, the number of people leaving them free of their dependency on drugs has barely increased. According to figures from the National Treatment Agency (NTA), spending on drugs services reached £384m last year, up from £253m in 2004-05. In 2004, 5,759 people left drug treatment free from their addiction, compared with 5,829 in 2006. The proportion of people who are completely drug-free after treatment is actually falling, down to a lowly 3 per cent.

That has led some to suggest that the Government's current policy on treating those with drug addictions is flawed, and that public money is being mis-spent.

How has the Government reacted?

The Department of Health has defended its increased investment in drug treatment services by saying that the effects of the heightened spending have not been felt yet. It says that it can take as much as seven years for an addict to complete their treatment successfully, meaning that it is too early to make any judgements about the effects of the extra money.

It also points out that the number of drug users receiving treatment is at a record high, meaning that the Government's target on treatment has been achieved two years early. There are now more than 195,000 people accessing drug treatment, which is 130 per cent more than in 1998. Health minister, Dawn Primarolo, said that achievement was "remarkable".

She said: "Many thought that the targets set in 1998 were aspirational and unrealistic. We have made massive strides in tackling the harm that drugs cause to both individuals and society as a whole. Through the drug strategy we will continue to ensure that effective drug treatment is available to those who need it."

Who should we believe?

It probably is too early to make any definite judgement on the Government's drug treatment strategy, as there are interesting statistics about the number of people now staying in their drug-treatment programmes. The NTA figures showed that the number of drug users completing early treatment or being retained on treatment increased from 76 per cent in 2005-06 to 80 per cent in 2006-07. This could be a sign that the increased investment is beginning to have an impact.

Does drug treatment serve any purpose?

For some, it is life-changing. There are more than 5,000 people each year who are given the opportunity of a drug-free life due to the drug-addiction programmes. The economy and society also benefit, as addicts can again become productive members of their community. But with the cost of getting each one off drugs reportedly reaching £1.85m over the past three years, questions are bound to be asked about whether it is worth the burden on the taxpayer.

Others argue that drug treatment should not just be measured by the number of people who leave it drug-free. "You cannot get heavy drug users off drugs over night," said the chair of the all-party Parliamentary Drugs Misuse Group, Labour MP, Brian Iddon. "A lot of drug treatment is about stabilising users, so they can function normally, get a job and sort themselves out. It is a complicated issue, but it is not all about abstinence."

Is the UK's drugs policy failing?

When seen in terms of the number of people now accessing drug treatment, there has been a vast improvement over the past decade. That suggests that drug addicts are much more aware of the help that is available to them. And anti-drugs messages might be having a greater effect more generally. According to the British Crime Survey, the number of people reporting to have used drugs in the past year is falling. Now, 8 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds say that they have taken a Class A drug, down from 8.6 per cent in 1998. And 24.1 per cent say that they have taken any illegal drug in the past 12 months, down from 31.8 per cent in 1998. But as the new figures have confirmed, trying to get people off drugs permanently is a lengthy and costly process – and one on which there does not seem to be much progress.

So what's going wrong?

Part of the problem is the nature of drug addiction itself. While it takes years to kick the habit, a relapse can happen in a second. For many drug users and former drug users, it is an on-going battle, rather than a clean break from their drug habit. According to some, too much attention has been paid to getting people into treatment, rather than focusing on the quality of treatment given to each patient. "The Government has gone for targets – on the quantity of people receiving treatment rather than the quality of treatment," said Brian Iddon. "We are now beginning to see the quality of treatments improve as well, including wider use of psychological treatments for cocaine addicts."

What are the policy alternatives?

Some say that a radical change is needed in the form of an end to the policy of prohibition. That is the opinion of drugs policy think-tank, Transform. It believes that drug prohibition itself is the prime cause of drug-related harm to both the individual users and society as a whole. It believes that proper government regulation would cut out criminal involvement in drugs, as well as decriminalising thousands of users.

"The Government has created a rod for its own back by over-hyping the usefulness of drug treatment," said Danny Kushlick, the director of Transform. "Becoming totally drug-free is only possible for a tiny minority of drug users of any type. Only around 5 per cent will be able to totally stop taking drugs.

"The reason that the Government gives so much money to the issue is because it wants to be seen to be tackling drug-related crime. If it really wants to tackle that, it needs to get rid of prohibition, which is the greatest cause of drug-related crime. Drug treatment should not be about making people drug-free. It should be about public health."

Will anything change?

Any movement away from the prohibition of drugs is unlikely, as it is an extremely politically sensitive issue. If anything, the Government is moving in the other direction. Gordon Brown has already said he is opposed to the legalisation of drugs, and has hinted he wants to reclassify cannabis.

Early next year, the Government will launch a new 10-year drug strategy, which could see a slight change in philosophy. It is already thought that a greater focus will be placed on getting people off drugs, rather than focusing on improving access to drug treatment services.

Do we need to re-think drug treatment in the UK?


* Despite a massive increase in money devoted to drug treatment, the number of people leaving it drug-free remains the same

* There would be more effective ways of tackling the social problems caused by drug addiction, such as legalisation

* Only a tiny proportion of drug users will ever be able to be completely drug-free, making it an unrealistic target


* More people are continuing with their treatment than in the past, so the increased investment could be working

* Even if only a tiny number of addicts become drug-free, it is an important, life-changing process for them

* More people are seeking treatment for drug misuse than ever before. Cutting funding now would be a backward step

Belfast Telegraph


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