A New Drug Strategy Is Long Overdue - But Is The Will There To Deliver?

03/08/2017 12:05 BST | Updated 03/08/2017 12:05 BST
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Last month, the government published its new drug strategy - the first since 2010. Back then, Theresa May was Home Secretary, not Prime Minister; Spice lived in our kitchen cupboards, not on the front pages; and drug-related deaths were falling. Times have changed, and so have the problems we face as a country when it comes to supporting people with substance misuse problems.

In fact, we've seen changes during that time which mean it's often harder for people to get the support that they need. Local authority drug treatment budgets have been squeezed to the point where some providers, particularly those in the NHS, have had to walk away from contracts, unable to make the numbers add up. The radical changes this has required has led some drug treatment services to overreach trying to keep up. The recent closure of Lifeline, one of the longest established charities in the sector, is only the most visible example, multiple smaller providers have also had to shut up shop or merge with bigger players.

This has been accompanied by a stark and consistent increase in the number of people every year who lose their lives as a result of drug use. The causes behind the rise in drug-related deaths are complex, and include changes in the purity of heroin, and an ageing population who started using it in the eighties and never really stopped. All the same, they point to a policy response that is falling short.

Many of the welcome things about the government's approach in 2010 are still in place, with a clear focus on helping people who use drugs to seek effective treatment and support. The proposals are well-evidenced, and while drug reform campaigners will find little to cheer in the strategy, they represent a sensible approach to supporting people with substance misuse problems within the current laws of the land.

For instance, the strategy offers a long overdue recognition that you can't hope to address substance misuse problems without looking at the accompanying challenges of housing, mental ill health and offending. The strategy proposes that the way we measure local areas' success in dealing with drug issues should take these outcomes into account, and this is something we've consistently argued through the Making Every Adult Matter coalition.

The real question, though, is what will change as a result of this new strategy once the political attention it has generated passes. The orthodox response is that these things provide a helpful structure for policymakers - the scaffolding we need to build policies and action that make a difference to people's lives. The trouble is, we're not living in a time when the orthodox is adequate.

Having a strategy in place remains important, but unless there is the political will to deliver it in the long term then the change it proposes won't happen. By way of demonstrating the urgency of the issue, in 2015, two and a half thousand people died in connection with the use of an illegal drug - deaths that could have been prevented. At the same time, the services that exist to save lives and build recovery have struggled with responsibilities they lack the resources to meet.

That's why the Home Secretary's role chairing a new cross-government Drug Strategy Board could be vital. In a context where government's capacity is stretched, her political leadership could ensure the ambitions of the strategy are delivered. However, this depends on securing high-level buy in from other government departments to tackle the range of social challenges that accompany substance misuse.

With the right political energy, the government could work with treatment agencies, their partners and people with lived experience of substance misuse to shape the new outcome measures it has announced. And furthermore, it could provide a mechanism for agreeing the secure, stable funding that will be necessary if local areas are to achieve those outcomes.

Our country is lucky to have an excellent drug treatment system that is staffed by extraordinary, driven staff and volunteers. We have a government that clearly recognises the need to do more to support them, but a new strategy will change nothing unless we challenge policymakers to listen to what's needed, and then act.