I write this from a Birmingham city centre hotel, a few minutes’ walk from a doorway I slept rough in during the 1990s, near the alleyways where I injected drugs. Sadly, more than 20 years later, people are still sleeping in that same doorway and are still injecting drugs in those alleyways.
The government’s 10-year drug strategy, announced on Monday, will do little to help these people. It is a criminal sanction-led approach – and I know from my own experience that a system designed to punish rather than support will only force drug users into hiding, back to those filthy dark alleyways with the rats running about.
I have lost too many friends to drug overdoses over the years – today, deaths are at their highest levels since the early 1990s. I have tried to change this by campaigning for safer injecting facilities (I ran the first unsanctioned one in the UK in Glasgow in April). These kinds of spaces are used in cities around the world – and help keep thousands of people alive by allowing people to use drugs under professional supervision, reducing harm, such as contracting illnesses like HIV, and supporting people into treatment. They have not been adopted by the government in the new drug strategy.
Instead, there is a call to crack down on middle-class drug users by revoking their passports and driving licences and a focus on targeting criminal drug gangs. These “war on drugs”-style tactics will not reduce illicit drug use and they won’t help those most at risk. I never had a passport when I was using heroin, for a start, and seeing the prime minister taking part in a drugs bust would have made no difference to my using whatsoever. The fact is that drugs will always be available and people will take them. Criminal sanctions often create more harm than the drug use itself – I was put through a traumatising experience of police cells, courts and news reports about being a “junkie”.
A better way to deal with criminal gangs is to support people to get off street drugs and on to safer medications such as methadone, buprenorphine and diamorphine – then allow them the time and space they need to work with professionals. From there, they can begin to address the issues that many people who have used drugs problematically face – complex traumas, mental health issues, experiences in the care system, abuse and neglect.
But instead the government wants “abstinence-based recovery”. This method of treatment nearly killed me. I first entered the criminal justice system as a teenager, where I remained stuck between young offender institutions and various court orders. What I actually needed was care and support to address my problematic drug use. However, like many others, I was sent, time and time again, into abstinence-based rehabs, where I would leave and relapse. Using again after a period of abstinence is very dangerous – your body has lost its tolerance and a deadly overdose is much more likely.
The strategy has mooted that drug testing people will become part of this prohibition system. But rather than testing people, we should be testing the drugs.
More lives will be lost if the government attempts to go down this road again of “a drug-free society”, coercing and encouraging people to be abstinent and insisting they cannot get social or psychological support until they are. I was not ready to stop using until I was ready. And until such a time as someone is ready to stop, if ever, they should not be forced into it. Our stigmatisation of opiate substitute treatments needs to end if we are to really get on top of the drug deaths crisis. People cannot recover if they are dead. And if it is right for a person to stay on medication, they should not be excluded from drug services as they too are in recovery, but it is often not seen that way.
There are some small wins in the new strategy: more money for diversion services, which are a chance for people to get help with their drug problems before they enter the criminal justice system. And more money is also being invested in frontline services (albeit in the context of debilitating underfunding over the last 10 years). The complete lack of continuity of care in drug services – which in part happens because services don’t have the funds to pay staff decent salaries – means that people like me end up having to explain our story again and again to multiple drug workers. It leads to retraumatisation and a lack of trust – getting clean is hard enough without a rotating cast of support workers.
I recently lost another family member – they were not an everyday drug user, they didn’t have an “addiction” or a need for “rehab”; they would still be alive had we had drug checking and safe consumption spaces. They left behind a young daughter, partner, mother, sister and brother. All are devastated.