Photo: Christine Evans speaking at the Drugs Harm Reducion seminar
It was sobering last week to hear the personal stories of tragedy wrought by drugs and those who deal them in our communities at my first Drugs Harm Reduction seminar.
It’s an area where much needs to be done. With 4.3 deaths per 100,000 linked to heroin or morphine use, Exeter has the dubious honour of having more than double the national average of 1.9 deaths. East Devon, North Devon, Torridge, Plymouth and Cornwall local authority areas all have heroin death rates that are well above average*.
It was for that reason that I brought together experts from around the region, from a multitude of different backgrounds, for the seminar in Torquay last Tuesday (June 18).
As Police and Crime Commissioner one of my roles is to give voice to those people affected by crime, and the seminar enabled those worst hit by drugs to address directly those who are charged with providing the services that have been put in place to deal with them.
Our first two speakers, Christine Evans and Elizabeth Burton-Philips, underlined to attendees the fact that drugs are indiscriminate killers. Their sons Jake and Nick never knew each other but the similarities in their lives were clear. Both were intelligent, fun, had wonderful prospects and supportive, loving families. Unfortunately they became hooked on heroin and their lives unravelled to feed their addiction. Despite the best efforts of loved ones, both ended up losing their lives because of drugs.
Often it is the lifestyle associated with heroin addiction that is more dangerous than the drug itself. Addicts will steal to fund their next fix, are at risk of becoming homeless, develop blood infections and risk injury by dealing with serious criminals who do not care about their clients’ welfare.
It’s for that reason that some practitioners advocate an approach known as Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT). Schemes in Middlesbrough and Glasgow hit the headlines recently and were portrayed as publicly-sanctioned “shooting galleries” where users will be given free drugs.
The principle is that by controlling the supply and taking the criminal dealer out of the equation, users will be provided with a safer lifestyle.
I have an open mind when it comes to solving this terrible problem but share the concerns of others when it comes to this approach. Unlike current methadone treatment it does little to reduce addicts’ dependence on drugs. At a cost of around £12,000 per user per year, it would require significant and ongoing public investment, and I believe we can do a lot more to deliver conventional, currently available services to help people who find themselves in the grip of addiction. These are proven methods which are known to deliver results.
I worry about the message that tolerating or legalising any drugs sends out – particularly to young people. Even cannabis, considered by many to be a substance that causes little harm, is anything but safe. Numerous studies have linked it to serious mental conditions and I noted that Elizabeth traced her son’s use of drugs back through ecstasy and cannabis to cigarettes.
At the moment too many people are not receiving the support they need to lead regular lives. Homelessness, inconsistent delivery of drug addiction services and more efforts to disrupt drug supply networks are required before we consider drastic new options.
Tuesday’s event was about bringing together the agencies and individuals that can make change happen by working more closely together to get more people off the drugs that cause so much harm. Only then will they be truly free of addiction.
While some of the rhetoric around drug treatment at the moment relates to austerity I spoke to say that this was distasteful. As a commissioner of services I want to hear what works to help these individuals with complex and chaotic lives fulfil their true potential. The community want to see them succeed in treatment and hearing from them is vital to shape services that work better.
Elizabeth’s experience motivated her to found the charity DrugFAM, which offers support to families whose relatives are in the grip of addiction. Anyone wanting their help can call the helpline on 03008883853 or visiting drugfam.co.uk.
*Rate of heroin and morphine deaths by misuse, 2014 to 2016, England and Wales, ONS