The Government’s drug strategy invites bigger questions about substance abuse in the UK

7 Dec

Yesterday the Government unveiled its 10-year drug strategy, an incredibly ambitious – and expensive – set of proposals to tackle growing rates of substance abuse in England and Wales.

It follows from a two-part review by Dame Carol Black into how to deal with this matter, who warned “we cannot expect a reduction in demand [for drugs] without reversing the recent disinvestment in treatment and recovery services”, and that reforms should be “interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”

It is these two statements that underpin much of the Government’s strategy, written up in a 67-page document. Although it encompasses many areas relating to drug abuse – from border and prison security, to levelling up, to tackling the county lines model of drug distribution – all of these will be tackled with a holistic approach.

The prevention of substance abuse, particularly in schools, for instance, will be prioritised as much as punishment(s). It is a generous strategy, too; a total of £780 million has been allocated for England’s drug treatment system, as well as £300 million for tackling county line gangs.

In general, the report marks a rapid departure from what would previously be considered the “conservative” position towards drug abuse. Perhaps this was best characterised by Peter Hitchens in 2012 when he famously debated Russell Brand on Newsnight about whether drug addiction should be treated as a disease or a crime.

Hitchens advocated for the latter – arguing in favour of better enforcement of the law – whereas Brand, in his Brandish way, argued for a more health-centred approach.

It could be said that the Government has come round to the “Brand” model of thinking, as the strategy is much more compassionate than pundits might have anticipated, with a strong focus on the “adequate provision of inpatient detoxification and residential rehabilitation in all areas of the country”.

It is also pastoral in parts, proposing the roll out of “‘substance misuse courts’, where the offender is seen regularly by the same judge who oversees their progress with treatment and other interventions.”

Will this drug strategy change growing rates of abuse in the country? Given how wide-ranging it is, in terms of its recommendations and which group of society they most affect, it’s worth saying that each individual element needs to be critiqued in its own right. 

But overall it’s hard to see how such enormous levels of funding, particularly towards helping drug users rebuild their lives after treatment, won’t make a noticeable difference.

It was interesting to see the report garner support across the political spectrum, with many of the Government’s critics intrigued to see how much money is being put towards this matter. The positive reactions may show a wider societal shift; how mainstream it now is to want drug use to be treated as a health issue, as much as a criminal one.

Where there is criticism, it may be around whether certain drugs should be legalised and regulated, as opposed to clamped down on. Some will say it’s no use the Government closing down country line gangs, and others selling drugs, when the demand is still there – and people will simply find more troublesome ways to access their substance of choice.

My own question in all this is why we have growing rates of substance abuse in the first place; according to one paper, there was a 13 per cent rise in the number of drug offences between 2019 and 2020.

It seems to me – albeit, as a non drug policy expert – there are two explanations. One is that we are a society with an ever-growing need for “escapism”. Is it a big surprise, for example, that rates of drug use (and alcohol) grew in the year we had lockdown? The Government needs to ask itself, more generally, what are people trying to “escape” from – which cannot always be neatly addressed by more funding for services.

The second – which I have thought for several years now – is that people are increasingly giving up on the bigger picture when it comes to saving and spending their money, in favour of hedonistic pursuits. In a country where it’s become near impossible to buy a house – or even save for a nice piece of furniture – is it any wonder people become more blasé with their credit cards? With a greater sense of purpose, and more optimism about the future, perhaps we might not be such a “hedonistic” nation.

And so, even with all the Government funding on offer, it seems to me this strategy will not fill a more “existential” hole leading to growing rates of drug use. But it’s far easier to chuck money at services than deal with the structural issues (lack of sensible homes) that encourage people towards chemical “escapes”. Until the Government fully takes on these matters, one imagines its drug strategy will have a limited impact.