Saturday, November 25, 2006

Everyone is talking about heroin and cocaine again

It’s been a busy old week for drugs stories. First Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, starts a media firestorm with his comments in favour of heroin prescribing, and then a report from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction starts another one, when it reports that the UK has Europe’s highest cocaine consumption.

No bad thing – both these stories have fuelled important and in many ways positive debate, firstly about heroin prescribing and secondly about the striking failure of UK drug policy regards cocaine. Neither actually ‘news’ as such but we can’t complain, even if some of the coverage doesn’t reflect particularly well on some of the media outlets.

Heroin prescribing is nothing new, and nor is senior police calling for it. Former Chief Constable Francis Wilkinson wrote a book about it and got almost identical headlines more than five years ago, whilst North Wale’s serving Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom has been saying the same thing, and getting the same headlines for years. There are plenty of others. The more annoying thing about this weeks reporting is that, in the quest for a juicy headline, it has suggested that heroin somehow needs to be legalised or that prescribing it is a new idea. Obviously heroin has been a legal licensed medicine since it was invented over a century ago, has been prescribed to addicts as far back as the first world war, and still is.

And its not even as if the Government needs that much persuading – David Blunkett announced an expansion of the existing heroin prescribing service back in 2002, and the Government authorised a number of pilot Swiss-style prescribing drop in centers ages ago, which have been operating over the last few years. The Times tried to make this non news into a scoop under the headline ‘Hardened addicts given free heroin in secret NHS trial’ – when clearly it was neither secret nor a new idea. They also note in a facts section at the end titled ‘ the price of addiction’:

£15,000 a year needed to fund an addiction
£45,000 The cost of the crimes committed each year by a heroin addict

This 45K figure was very naughty: rich heroin users don’t have to commit any crime to support their habits, and nor do those on prescriptions.

For some decent information on Heroin prescribing there was a useful review of the evidence from around the world produced recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and there is a good essay by Dr Ben Goldacre from 1998 that has recently re-emerged online that’s well worth a look.

As for the cocaine story, this was just a rehash of the ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ news that journalists, with quite amazing regularity, wheel out each year when the annual reports are published by the British Crime Survey and EMCDDA that just confirm what they said last year. In the intervening months we can usually rely on sporadic ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ stories hung on either a ‘celeb/model takes cocaine shock’ exposé, or the investigative journalist (with nothing better to do) favorite ‘cocaine traces found in bar/ school/ parliament/ convent /*insert unlikely place* toilets’. Broadsheet journalists in particular love the ‘cocaine shock’ stories because it gives them a chance to sneak some celebrity tat into their news pages, basically offering a free ticket to hurtle down market and appeal to Heat readers - The Independent on Sunday’s non-news cover story last Sunday being a case in point.

Still, at least the media arent talking about cannabis for a change, and these stories do give critics of the UK Drug Strategy – that in 1998 pledged to reduce the use and availability of Class A drugs by 50% by 2008 – a great opportunity to point out that it is doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to (ie cocaine is cheaper, more available and loads of people are using it) despite the billions of pounds still being thrown at it. Assuming Gordon Brown is the next PM – you have to hope he’s paying attention.

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