Bill Nelles – Doctor Wars (part one)

In the first part of his two part series ‘Doctor Wars’ Bill Nelles describes how the running battles between substance misuse clinicians in the ’70s and ’80s helped to shape today’s treatment landscape.

Bill Nelles
Bill Nelles is an advocate and activist, now in Canada. He founded The (Methadone) Alliance in the UK

What to do about opiate use and users has been discussed, argued, and shouted about for more than a century now to relatively little positive change. It’s like the opening song in The Sound of Music – ‘how do you solve a problem like Maria?’ Only no one ever does solve the problem of Maria (although I think it has something to do with finding love and, of course, climbing every mountain – a familiar metaphor for any users).

The same seems true for opiate users. We dutifully sing the songs asking for help, but too often leave disappointed. There are still hundreds and even thousands of opiate-dependent users in the UK and around the world who want and deserve a safe supply of that medicine under medical oversight, and finally some are getting it. And I use the word oversight for a reason. It should mean ensuring services are providing empathic access to a safe supply with all the social support, trauma therapies and help with housing that we know are essential to settling down to a life of quality without the poisons on our streets. Having all these is what saved me for nearly 40 years. All were necessary for me and there should be widespread shame at the lack of this joined-up care today.

It wasn’t until the late ’60s that serious prohibition started in the UK – largely because young people, not elderly users and dependent doctors, were now using heroin and getting it from doctors famous for their unusual prescribing locales like coffee bars and street corners. Some changes were understandable as the system was anarchic and largely unregulated.

But the ‘classic’ NHS clinics born around 1969 all had differing attitudes with little agreement on what to do within the teams formed to run them. Thus the era of the ‘doctor wars’ broke out – psychiatry came to dominate treatment in the UK, leading to psychotherapy becoming the approach, and in London high quality Chinese heroin replaced the state gear. So people voted with their veins.

This was in direct contrast to Dr Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander’s approach in New York that saw opiate use as a physically mediated condition that was treatable but not curable, and not always responsive to psychotherapy. Opiate receptors were identified soon afterwards, and real research started uncovering just what was going on.

But the UK’s NHS drug dependency units were taken over by psychiatrists, not medical doctors. With some notable exceptions, their goals were abstinence through withdrawal and therapy. All these psychiatrists who held the new licences needed to prescribe heroin hardly used them, with a few notable exceptions. People were moved onto oral methadone or nothing if your particular clinician wouldn’t prescribe, or you only had access to a non-medical community drug team – tea and sympathy (of little use) if you were ‘lucky’, but confrontation if you weren’t.

The fights at the monthly meetings held at the Home Office Drugs Branch during the ’70s to mid ’80s brought together psychiatrists who hated prescribing, some of the private doctors who could still prescribe some opiates and opioids (but not heroin or cocaine), and the very few doctors who did still prescribe injectables to the few. They were often vicious and sometimes very personal – some moderating influence came from the presence and later letters and testimony of dear Bing Spear, head of the Home Office Drugs Branch the until the early ’70s. He was replaced by a warrior who did his best to shut down even oral methadone.

By 1983 even getting methadone for more than a short period became very rare in the NHS clinics and unheard of in Scotland. One of the heads of the Royal College of Psychiatrists held that ‘no one needs more than 40mg of methadone a day’ – which was a big reason so many people had such poor outcomes and used on top. Most were expected to and that’s why their methadone was kept so low. There were no objective medical tests or practices used in the UK to ensure patients had adequate doses to minimise fluctuation of methadone levels.

Prescribing anything opiate-like through the NHS to those dependent had almost completely stopped by 1983. But events were about to take an unprecedented shift, and that changed how everything would be done. I’ll explore this further in the next edition.

Read Part two here