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Neil McKeganey: Time for tough action over legal highs. The CSJ is right to take ministers to task

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The Centre for Social Justice has just produced a report “Ambitious for Recovery” on how well the UK is doing in tackling its drugs problem. An assessment coming from what is widely seen as a Conservative leaning think-tank might be expected to be favorably inclined towards the government- if that was the government’s own view they’ll be revising it now. This is a report that identifies failure at every turn.

When the Conservative Party won the election there was an expectation that the world of drug treatment would undergo massive change, ushering in a focus on recovery and abstinence-oriented treatment, rather than presiding over a national methadone programme that saw tens of thousand of heroin addicts left long-term on their substitute medication.

Things are not as bad now as they were, with pockets of excellence in recovery-oriented care and treatment, but they are not as good as it should be.  We know from research that those addicts who are lucky enough (and they are shockingly few in number) to get a place in an abstinence-focused residential rehabilitation programme stand the greatest chance of overcoming their addiction. Sadly, the demise of the residential rehab sector that Labour presided over has continued under the  Coalition Government. If Nick Clegg wants to get in a lather about drug issues, then why does he not take up the fact that we don’t have single residential rehabilitation centre for adolescents with drugs problems?

This report from the CSJ is welcome and courageous in taking the Government to task. It boldly calls for more use of drug courts, for scrapping the awful FRANK programme, for taxing alcohol and using the money to pay for residential drug treatment programmes, for improving prison-based treatment and for tackling the problem of new psychoactive drugs.

Over the last few years, we have seen an alarming increase in the number of deaths associated with these drugs – in Scotland there has been a 1000 per cent  increase in novel psychoactive substance linked deaths in four years. However, alongside all the handwringing and the exhortation to “do something” we still have these drugs being openly sold on the high streets across the UK.

New Zealand tried to license their sale in a move that was prematurely championed by the drugs legalisers only to find that the drugs they were licensing were so harmful they needed to institute an immediate outright ban. In England, we have a Lib Dem Home Office Minister who seems more interested in punting liberal ideas on drugs than tackling a problem that is being compounded by his own Government’s failure to act.

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Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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