New figures from Scotland show that methadone is now the main source of drugs deaths north of the border.
In 2011 a total of 584 people died from drugs - a ''record high'' according to The Scotsman newspaper. This figure includes alcohol, which killed 129 people in 2011, and heroin (206 victims), but the biggest source of deaths was methadone - 275 in Scotland last year.
The problem is that methadone is highly addictive, some say worse than heroin, prescribed by GPs as a treatment for addicts. Health service commissioners still consider it a good thing.
Dr Roy Robertson, chairman of the National Forum on Drug Related Deaths, said, "If you stay on it, your life improves. People's weight increases; they become more sociable; their ability to work increases. So it's a good drug.''
Other arguments in favour of methadone are that it takes injecting drug users out of the illegal drugs market and has been responsible for reducing the number of deaths by HIV/AIDS (by the prevention of sharing dirty needles).
The NHS Methadone Treatment Programme looks impressive in theory and could be used to help addicts come down off their opiates -- but only if it is used with psychotherapy, which can address the underlying causes of their addiction. But psychotherapy is an individual and relatively expensive treatment and would be impossible to offer to all registered drug addicts as there aren't enough therapists in the UK. As a result, almost a quarter of a million Britons are given a daily dose of methadone with very few getting any kind of supporting psychotherapy. This is what the NHS call ''treatment'' for drug addicts and they measure their success by the number of people who continue taking the drug, rather than the number who become abstinent.
An editorial in The Scotsman last week said, ''The reality is that methadone has become just another commodity on the street, traded by dealers, and it is safe to assume the NHS is the source of the vast majority, if not all, of that methadone. At the very least there is now a case for examining whether the methadone programme is really working. Is it really a help, or is it merely a state-issued drug, making the problem worse?''
We would welcome a debate on this issue, particularly if the NHS would consider funding other types of drug treatment programmes. At the moment it seems that the only option available to injecting drug users is to prescribe methadone indefinitely.
The frustration from those of us who work in the residential rehab sector is that the type of abstinence-based treatment that we offer is not offered to those drug addicts who approach their GPs for help. This is despite the fact that abstinence-based treatment really does work. At the rehab clinic where I work over 60% of those who complete treatment manage to stay abstinent.
The Scottish Tories are up in arms about the new drug death figures and Ruth Davidson, Tory leader in the Scottish parliament, said, "This appalling loss of life illustrates the human disaster that is the methadone programme. It would appear hundreds of families are being blighted by what is little more than legalised drug taking on an industrial scale."
Similar statements against methadone were made by the English Conservatives before they got into power. Since then we have been waiting for a change of policy, or some sign that the NHS will consider residential rehab treatment as a viable option for those who find themselves addicted to drugs.
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