A police chief in Cleveland has warned of the fatal dangers of treating drug addiction as a criminal matter instead of a public health matter. The US-led ‘War on Drugs’ is now over 50 years old. The tolerance and understanding of addiction as a disease rather than a lifestyle choice is now mainstream. Yet the UK government appears to be furthering policies that undermine the advancements of the medical community in reducing stigma that surrounds addiction treatment.
Mr Lewis states that “In 21 years of police service I have slowly, perhaps too slowly, come to the conclusion that framing this crisis as a criminal justice problem has not simply been unhelpful, but counterproductive.”
Addiction is a disease, often accompanied by a mental illness and more prevalent in people who have experienced trauma, the care system, homelessness, and other adverse life experiences. There is growing acknowledgement that people struggling with substance misuse and seeking help for addiction should not be treated as criminals first and foremost and that “this nationwide epidemic is a public health crisis.”
Substance Abuse in the UK
Britain has the highest rates of drug abuse in Europe, and 275,896 adults were in contact with drug and alcohol services between April 2020 and March 2021. In 2020, there were 4,561 registered deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales, an increase of 3.8% compared to 2019.
Addiction and drug-related deaths are a growing problem in the UK, affecting individuals, families, and communities. Children who are raised by parents struggling with substance abuse are at increased risk of experiencing adversities during both childhood and adulthood. Additionally, imprisonment of a household member is known to have a significant impact on the long-term health and wellbeing of a child.
This has come to light through research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) that examines the effect of the toxic stress response. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a well-known researcher on ACE’s states, “Toxic Stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, prolonged adversity — without adequate support.” There is particular concern from the medical community, and those that work with children that this kind of regular activation of the stress response systems over a long period of time can seriously affect the development of brain architecture and impair the other organs and bodily systems. This has been shown to increase the risk of stress-related disease, heart and liver failure, as well as impairing cognitive functioning into adulthood.
The very nature of living with parents who struggle with substance misuse and mental illness, as well as parents who have been imprisoned, are linked with the development of substance abuse issues in adulthood. The system of criminalisation and incarceration as opposed to treatment and healing is furthering a cycle of addiction and adverse life outcomes.
Those such as Mr Lewis who oppose the current approach, and many ACE researchers argue that providing supportive services to children and their families and addressing this issue during treatment is essential to prevent ongoing drug and alcohol-related harm.
An Alternative Approach
Mr Lewis expresses concern that the majority of people in society have conflated the message that drugs are innately “bad”, with addicts themselves being bad because they use drugs. Mr Lewis worries that while there is of course a requirement for discourse that critiques the use of illicit and dangerous substances, the over-simplified messaging and drug education has created such a strong social stigma that people fear judgement and put-off seeking treatment. He continues by saying that despite the “war on drugs” now passing the 50 year mark, figures from 2020 showed Teesside had 123 drug-related deaths, “the highest number since figures have been collated.” He is adamant that most of those drug-related deaths could have been entirely preventable.
However, many would question what a more humane approach to drug and alcohol use would look like. A spokesperson from the UK Home Office has stated: “Drugs damage communities and ruin lives.” They take the view that preventing drug use in local communities, often by strict policing of the consumption, supply and distribution of illegal drugs is where funding should be focussed.
The UK government recently announced a landmark £900 million investment to address substance misuse in Britain over the next 10 years. While the plan has not yet been set out in absolute detail, it does include several schemes that focus on recovery as opposed to retribution for drug use. New ‘Problem Solving Courts’ and an increase in spending for the Prison Leavers aim to support the one third of people who enter the criminal justice system who struggle with substance abuse.
There are, however, several policies that seek to criminalise drug use and deter use by confiscating passports, mandatory drug tags, and nightclub bans. This punitive approach to policing substance use will be costly, and many campaigners question whether it will address the root of the reason people abuse illicit substances.
The Role of Social Support
Mr Lewis mentions that “Many have made bad choices in their lives – but by helping people like [them], we help ourselves.” While it is important to recognise the role of life choices as part of addiction treatment, campaigners and groups such as Crisis make the link between issues such as homelessness and addiction, with many people living on the street driven to drug use. The UK Government data shows that around 1 in 9 people starting addiction treatment stated that they had a housing problem and a further 6% had an urgent problem.
Crisis advocates say that individuals, people, and communities lose their homes for a variety of reasons. Uncapped rent increases and low pay, with many industries having not seen a pay increase in relative terms in several years, intensifies the strain on managing spending as the cost of living goes up. Sudden and profound life events such as a job loss, divorce, accident, or family breakdown can gradually or in some cases rapidly force people into homelessness. Crisis echoes the calls of Shelter and other homeless charities to also invest in accessible social housing in a bid to address the issues people are facing before their situation gets out of control or before it even begins. Failing to address the causes of the problem and choosing to focus on punishment instead of treatment risks wasting millions of pounds on an approach to policing drug use that has shown limited success.