The presentation of the report and recommendations of the Independent Drugs Commission, and the predictable reaction of local and national media, means that the chance of having a reasonable debate on the issues is lost. I turned down about a dozen requests for comment or interview , and remained silent on the report until now as there was nothing to be gained from trying to persuade journalists to discuss the wider issue of tackling drugs when all they want to do is discuss consumption rooms.
All this is frustrating as some of the conclusions of the Commission raise some interesting issues, worthy of consideration, but overall the report is an opportunity missed. This is my response to the Commission’s report.
The Commission addressed four issues:
- Are the current strategies to prevent drug related deaths sufficient to achieve a significant reduction in the coming years?
- Are the policing, prosecution and sentencing strategies currently pursued, effective in reducing drug related harm?
- Are we doing enough to protect young people and to enable them to make informed decisions around drug use and involvement in drug markets?
- To what extent does the treatment system meet the treatment and recovery needs of the citizens of Brighton & Hove?
Unfortunately, the report is presented in a vacuum, giving no acknowledgement of the most radical change in national drug strategy for a generation. The Coalition Government has called for a treatment revolution and the championing of abstinence. The words “abstinence”, “abstain”, even “drug free” do not appear in the Commission’s report even once. By ignoring the national context, the report is immediately undermined and is, at best, of academic interest.
My disappointment with the conclusions focuses on the first and fourth points above and can be summarised as follows: it lacks ambition, and the presentation of the issues does not create the right platform for a proper debate on how to enhance progress in drug treatment.
According to the report, just 12% of those entering treatment services in Brighton “left the treatment system in a planned way, having overcome their dependency”. This compares to a national figure of 15%. The report is correct to say that “For the system to remain sustainable, the number of successful exits from the treatment system must keep pace with the number of new clients registered. If too many clients are retained in the system for too long, the system will become log-jammed. The Health and Well Being Board needs to find ways to increase the numbers successfully treated each year and support their recovery in order to prevent relapses and a return to dependence, both on drugs and on the treatment system”.
While the recommendation that “The development of a city wide recovery culture is promoted and embedded throughout the treatment system, and related settings”, it is an after thought, appearing on page 23 of the 23 page report. It illustrates a lack of ambition. This issue should be upfront and should set the tone for the rest of the report, creating the climate where the more sensationalist issues, such as consumption rooms, could have been dealt with in the context of recovery and abstinence.
A bold ambition, of say 40% or 50% leaving treatment drug free, would have been a defining contribution to the debate and the development of services in Brighton. Such an approach would be right for clients, it would help them achieve their aspirations, and would assist them to cope with the fundamental changes we are experiencing in welfare reform. A failure to address the addiction of a sizeable cohort will result in them finding themselves further outside the structures of society with all the predictable consequences for them, their families and society at large.
The presentation of the report attracted predictable, yet avoidable, headlines. The media focused exclusively on consumption rooms. How different it could have been had the report recommended a treatment revolution locally, with the ambition that Brighton will replace the unwanted headline of “drug death capital” to the “recovery capital” of the UK.
That would have created a climate where more controversial steps could have been introduced as a minor part of a process aimed at getting people into recovery and abstinence.
I previously urged the Commission to look again at its report so that it could strengthen its recommendations and thereby becoming a defining point in the evolution of drug policy and the start of a real drug revolution locally. I am sorry it did not do this.