Cross-government unit to tackle drug misuse

A new drugs unit will be set up to help end illegal drug-related illness and deaths, the government has announced today.

The Joint Combating Drugs Unit will bring together multiple government departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, Home Office, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Education and Ministry of Justice – to help tackle drugs misuse across society.

This joint approach recognises that treatment alone is not enough and wider support, including with housing and employment, is essential to aid recovery.

There are now an estimated 300,000 opiate or crack users in England, and around one million people using cocaine per year. Drug misuse poisoning deaths are at a record high, having increased by nearly 80% since 2012.

It comes as Professor Dame Carol Black today publishes the second part of her Independent Review of Drugs, which sets out more than 30 recommendations to the government to help overcome the harm drugs have caused to individuals, families and communities across the country.

The report calls for significant investment in the drug treatment and recovery system so that more people can get the support they need.

The review recommends the government must work together to improve treatment, employment, housing support and the way people with addictions are treated in the criminal justice system. It recommends addiction be recognised as a chronic health condition, requiring long-term follow-up.

The report says there’s an urgent need to reinforce the treatment workforce to raise standards and restore morale, while national leadership needs to be strengthened to reduce supply and help people get off and stay off drugs.

Professor Dame Carol Black said:’Drug deaths are at an all-time high and drug addiction fuels many costly social problems, including homelessness and rising demands on children’s social care.

‘The government faces an unavoidable choice: invest in tackling the problem or keep paying for the consequences. A whole-system approach is needed and this part of my review offers concrete proposals, deliverable within this Parliament, to achieve this.’

The rise in drug misuse poisoning deaths has been driven by increases in heroin deaths which have doubled in this time and other substances such as cocaine have seen notable recent increases.

The proportion of 11-15-year-olds who use drugs has increased in recent years with one in three 15-year-olds saying they took drugs in the last year.

Rosanna O’ Connor, director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at Public Health England said: ‘Drug treatment services save lives and help many people recover from drug dependence, improving not only their lives but those of their families, their communities and wider society. We know treatment works and so it’s essential that everyone can easily get the treatment they need.

‘We welcome Dame Carol Black’s recommendation for increased funding that is protected and prioritised for treatment and recovery services to ensure that everyone can get the support they need to move forward with their lives.’

man lighting cigarette

There are 32 recommendations made in the report, including that the government invests more in treatment and recovery support, and appoints a single, responsible minister on drug policy to hold the government to account.

Its recommendations include:

  • Reforming central leadership to set clear targets for the government through a new government unit headed up by a minister
  • Increasing funding for drug treatment in the community by over £550 million over five years.
  • Requiring local authorities to use drug treatment funding for this purpose.
  • Introducing a national Commissioning Quality Standard to ensure comprehensive treatment services are available, working with health, housing and employment support, and criminal justice partners when commissioning services.
  • Taking urgent action to restore the morale of the workforce, including through employing more staff to work in this area so people can receive a higher quality service.
  • Commissioning a new strategy to increase the number of professionally qualified drug treatment staff including psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses and social workers.
  • Developing and implementing an action plan to improve mental health treatment of people with drug dependence.
  • Taking action to divert drug users from the criminal justice system into treatment, and maximise the use of community sentence treatment requirements.  
  • Ensuring everyone leaving prison has ID and a bank account, ensuring that prisoners with drug dependence can access and receive drug treatment in the community as soon as possible after release. 

Responding to a government-commissioned review by Dame Carol Black on drug misuse and dependence which focuses on prevention, treatment and recovery, Cllr David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said:

‘Councils are absolutely determined to ensure drug users get the right support and treatment, as part of their public health and other wider responsibilities and look forward to working with the Joint Combating Drugs Unit on this shared ambition.

‘This includes helping vulnerable people being given another chance to find work, rebuild relationships, improve their physical and mental health and find safe and secure accommodation. 

‘For many drug users, especially the most entrenched, engaging in treatment is the catalyst for getting the help they need to address their physical and mental health problems.

‘Funding for public health services including for drug prevention, treatment and recovery, has not kept pace with demand and councils want to continue working with government, local NHS, police, community groups and other partners to ensure everyone gets the support they need wherever possible. 

‘As this report states, investing in drug prevention and treatment now will reap benefits for everyone longer-term, including for the NHS, criminal justice and other public services.

‘We need a closer, holistic approach which recognises that clinical services alone cannot lead to recovery, but also extra support and opportunities for drug users to gain employment, housing, mental health care and help from other agencies.’

Photo Credit – GRAS GRÜN


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