£148 Million of new money, that's brand new, not re-hashed or re-formulated cash, was pledged to cut crime and protect people from the harms caused by illegal drug use. This is due to an 80% rise in drug-related deaths since 2012 and is meant to tackle the supply of drugs, work with communities to support young children to make choices and minimise county lines gangs.
There was also money pledged to drug treatment services to support people who may have fallen fowl to substance misuse and to help, in the government's own words, "making sure children are no longer pressured to misuse drugs or get drawn into supplying them or reforming the treatment and recovery system to help people overcome drug misuse".
Has it worked?
Why Funds Were Allocated
In 2020, Dame Carol Black was commissioned to complete an independent review of drug use in England and Wales. This was a significant step forward and hopefully positive change for all working in the drug treatment sector. The report was split into two sections; Part 1 looked in depth at the current picture and drug scene within England and Wales, and Part 2 was a series of recommendations of what we can do to improve our response to drug use and to improve treatment and recovery outcomes for people who use drugs.
The government outlined in part 1 the extent of the trouble we face, stating that the "harms from drug misuse costs society £19.3 billion per year" This is built up not only from crime but also the impacts of drug use on health services.
Everyone I spoke to working in drug treatment services agreed that it was time for a change, that we need positive reforms to support those who misuse drugs, and that drug use is a healthcare issue, not a criminal justice issue. The excitement from all who work in the sector was buzzing, with great expectations that we will move forward with how we as a country react, treat and view people who use drugs. Workers asked if we would get a new, forward-thinking model that would take the best of what Europe and America are doing and that the UK will be at the forefront of drug treatment and services.
The Second Half
Part 2 of Dame Carol's review clearly states, "Government faces an unavoidable choice: invest in tackling the problem or keep paying for the consequences. A whole-system approach is needed, with demand reduction a key component, to drive down the profitability of the market. This part of my review offers concrete proposals, deliverables within this Parliament, to achieve this." From the offset, this statement is backwards loaded, in my opinion, totally missing out on the need to allow people in the UK to use a drug that is not alcohol or tobacco, missing the point again that drug use is not a criminal offence, yet is a lifestyle choice and a choice that should be allowed.
The report also states that as a government, we cannot expect a reduction in the estimated 300,000 heroin and crack users if there is disinvestment in drug services and treatment, which has been the trend since 2010. All departments need to work together to invest in and improve the support that people who use drugs get; this includes employment, housing, and treatment. Oh, how ironic that this looks at a positive outcome for treatment.
How Funds are Meant to be Allocated
Let's break this £148 million of new money given; would you think most funds would go towards education, housing and treatment services? To break drug use, you need to break the cycle; it has been proven that a short custodial sentence does not work, and why's that? Simply, you get arrested for possession of drugs, petty theft or burglary. You spend 3-12 months at his majesty's pleasure, only to return to the town or city where you committed your crimes. You once had a local authority house, but that's now gone; you are bottom of the list for social housing, so you are released onto the streets to rough it with no house and no way to get a job as you have no accommodation and no money in the bank. So what do you do?
Simple, you revert to what you know, and that's a life of crime. Your drug use has not been addressed in jail because you are on a short sentence, so you have either gone cold turkey or continued your drug use in prison. The problem has not gone away; the likelihood is that you now have come out to a lot less than you had before, with no roof, no food, and no way to earn a raise.
You get referred to the local hostel if they have space or even a hostel in your town or city. And now you are with many people who use drugs, commit a crime, and live a life in the shadows; temptation is all around you, like the morning fog coming in; it wraps itself around you and consumes you until all that you can see is one life, one hell. It's easy to commit a crime; you know what to do, you have done it all your life, you fall back into the ways that have entrenched you for many years, and then you get nicked, and it's back in prison. This is your cycle; this is your life.
Because of this, most of the money would go towards breaking this prison and offending cycle, as this is the most significant impact on drug users. Only £80 million has been given to drug treatment services; that is not £80 million per city or c county, but £80 million split between every county. And did I fail to mention this is only for 12 months? Yeah, 12 months, not an additional each year or each treatment contract (contracts are usually 3-7 years, depending on what local authority tenders out).
Where has the Money Gone?
What's happened over the last few years is a series of disinvestment in treatment services, to the point that good quality drug workers have gotten frustrated with the increased workload over the past 12 years, no pay rises, and an expectation to work with service users as if they are working on a production line.
The inability to care for your service user or patient, the lack of care that the system has, yet as a worker, you still care; you work from home (off the books) and do more than the job allows. You cannot magically or miraculously make more drug workers, although, in reality, anyone can be a drugs worker; there is no formal training pathway, no recognised qualification; there used to be DANOS (Drug and Alcohol Occupation National Standard), but this was stopped over 6 years ago.
So where are these 80 million pounds going? A large chunk is going to Recruitment agencies; services are desperate for staff, so they turn to specialised recruitment agencies. As a drug worker, your basic starting salary is approx. £20k per year approx. £13 ph. Agencies are now offering between £20 - £26 per hour for a drug worker; this means that drug services are paying the agencies around £30 per hour.
That's nearly double what a drug worker earns and about £10 per hour more than a manager. Staff leave as quickly as they can, handing in their four weeks' notice and returning one week later to the same service doing the same job for twice as much money. This is where the majority of the £80 million is going. The agencies are taking the cream from the top; good drug workers are earning what they rightly should be, a fair wage for a challenging job. On this job, you can't leave it at the office, a position that, if you care, you don't stop caring.
Agency staff are now earning what they should be for dealing with 100+ service users' emotions, issues and problems. And to ensure that professional workers do not have to use food banks or loan sharks and have that constant worry of money. Yes, the job is not about money, we do this job because we care, but when you then become a user of services due to the inability to pay your own bills, feed and clothe your kids, then yeah, I don't blame them for going for the money. They deserve it!
And after 12 months, their contract will be terminated with the agency. However, the job role is still there, so they will go back to working as an employed drug worker, possibly for the same organisation they have just left. This makes no sense; as I have said, this is all down to disinvestment in drug services that have been going on for many years.
This money will not solve the long-term problem; it will only exacerbate it over the next few years, as some workers won't return. We are in a vicious cycle, born out of an attempt to escape. The money is wasted, and the abuse of drugs continues. Britain 2023.