This is not the blog I was planning to write. My intention was to look at developments in managing the Night Time Economy across a number of cities, an area where there is innovation and positive developments. Instead I feel compelled to look at an issue where the UK and others are demonstrably going backwards. Battles we thought had been won in fact appear lost, progress has not just stalled but been significantly reversed. It poses hard questions for many organisations and for individuals, including myself. So, come with me as I look at drug related deaths.
Twenty years ago, I began working in drugs policy. At that time just about every measure of data provided a depressing graph. Overall prevalence, drug related crime, and deaths all showed significant increases. Numbers into treatment showed some modest increases, the most significant positives were to be found in the successful efforts to reduce the spread of HIV amongst injecting drug users. The UK Government didn’t ignore the situation, some significant policy responses were put in place in 1995, these were reinforced by a new government in 1997, who had backed their ambition to reduce drug problems (especially crime) with massive investment. It was an exciting time to be a Civil Servant (yes really!), the pace of change was palpable you could “feel” things were improving. While progress was unevenly spread, it was real, and the graphs started to tell a different story.
Money made a difference, but so did leadership. From Whitehall to the local town hall there were individuals who promoted the importance of reducing drug related problems. Across relevant agencies and amongst many communities we saw an increase in the understanding of drugs and activities that benefited communities and individuals. There were many barriers and arguments about the value of work with young people, scope of treatment, what should come after treatment, tinkering with the Misuse of Drugs Act, and where the borders of harm reduction should lie. It could be frustrating, but it was dynamic. And at the risk of repetition much did improve. Around the world there was an interest in what the UK had done and what lessons could be applied to their own issues.
More than one Prime Minister felt able to say our approach to drugs was working and this sense of achievement perhaps permeated the entire system. Certainly, when various red lights started blinking on our dashboard some five years ago, they were treated as a blip, nothing to be too worried about.
Well in 2019 we should be very worried. The latest drug related death figures for England and Wales were recently released. These have increased by around a third, some thousand deaths, since 2013. Scotland has also seen record drug related deaths. Explanations are often offered in terms of an ageing opiate using population and to a point its valid. But that suggests that these deaths are somehow inevitable when clearly most are not. It also ignores the fact that its not just the ageing, Trainspotting generation (those of my vintage) who are making up the numbers. Record numbers in their 30’s and 40’s are also dying. In the broader context we are also seeing rises in prevalence amongst young people. Deaths are of course just the most the most acute harm. The tip of an iceberg, the canary in the mine, an indication of massive problems in services for the most vulnerable communities and individuals.
Reductions in funding are of course a contributory factor. Core drug services are still to be found and formal waiting times for treatment remain short, but a lot of the “softer” services have reduced. Outreach and peer work which was once widespread is now relatively rare. Innovation is rare, other than in how to deliver services for less money. At the risk of upsetting colleagues, I would also highlight a loss of expertise and knowledge across a range of allied services. Training budgets are easy to cut. Reducing expenditure on conferences may be justifiable when trying to preserve core functions. But it comes at a price. Agencies and professions retreat into their silos. Mutual understanding and cross sectoral collaboration weaken, though these are incredibly valuable when money is scarce.
The gloom is not quite all pervasive. In terms of blood borne viruses we have managed to keep HIV rates amongst injectors low at 1.2% and 97% of those with it are aware. Over the last decade the numbers with Hepatitis B have halved. Hep C has seen more modest gains and prevalence remains around the 50% mark, but the new treatments offer an exciting opportunity to eradicate this virus (and as such is attracting valuable political support). Worryingly rates of those sharing equipment has increased but the above shows that it is possible to do valuable and meaningful work with people who inject drugs. They are not beyond our reach, we not only know what to do, it is actually happening.
Of course, the UK is not alone. The USA is seeing an opioid death epidemic of massive proportions. Australia too has seen significant rises and, like the USA and UK, a lot of this occurring in areas which have previously seen relatively low rates of drug problems. Australia was of course in the vanguard of drug harm reduction. I have read advocates there calling for a greater focus and effort from politicians, as well as a willingness to trial new health-based approaches. In Scotland there has been a political response and a taskforce established to consider existing drug laws and the potential of supervised drug consumption rooms. The latter clearly has potential for saving lives of those who use them, but I think they may also have a broader, totemic, impact in terms of encouraging other approaches to help populations beyond their geographic reach.
So far in England the response has been muted. No one has even claimed Brexit will improve the situation. Public Health England are doing what they can, but the overall the sense seems to be of grim inevitability. Which will surely guarantee that next year sees another increase. My hope is that we rediscover some of the sense of mission that was once prevalent in the drugs field, that the provider sector is reinvigorated, we manage to engage some politicians, maybe even find some money. In doing so we can save lives, protect our communities and validate what we do. Who’s up for it?