Dark days review of the year 2015

There wasn’t very much to celebrate in 2015, a year that saw both England and Scotland record their highest ever number of drug-related fatalities, while a surprise outright Conservative election win heralded yet more belt-tightening and austerity…


Among ever-increasing fears about the impact of new psychoactive substances, the Ministry of JusticeDDN cover feb announces a raft of punitive measures for anyone found using or supplying them in prisons. ‘If prisoners think they can get away with using these substances they need to think again,’ warns justice secretary Chris Grayling.


DDN’s eighth national service user conference, The Challenge, proves to be the liveliest yet, with a day of powerful presentations against a background of increasing anxiety in the field. DrugScope’s State of the sector report indicates that the fears may be well founded, with more than half of survey respondents reporting a reduction in frontline staff alongside widespread concerns about job insecurity and rapid commissioning cycles. The highly controversial notion of linking treatment to benefit entitlement hits the headlines again as the prime minister commissions Prof Dame Carol Black to conduct a review into sickness benefits, while Alcohol Concern chief executive Jackie Ballard backs the call for health warnings on alcohol labels. ‘Every other bottle of poison in the supermarket has a warning label on it,’ she tells DDN.

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The government announces that it is developing plans for a general ban on the supply of all emerging drugs – the first stirrings of what is to become the controversial Psychoactive Substances Bill – and DrugScope goes into liquidation, blaming its worsening financial situation. ‘It is with a heavy heart that the board has taken this extremely difficult decision’, says chair Edwin Richards.


Five more NPS become subject to temporary banning orders, and Alcohol Concern accuses the drinks imay dnnndustry of using responsible drinking messages as just another way to promote its brands. Meanwhile, Dr Joss Bray writes in DDN that it’s time to put com­passion back into service provision.


There’s widespread surprise – not least within the party itself – when the Conservatives win a majority in the general election. The new government loses no time in announcing its ‘landmark’ blanket ban on all NPS, described by Release as ‘full blown regression’.

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New substances are now being identified at a rate of two a week, the latest EMCDDA European drug report warns, although demand for heroin appears to be ‘stagnating’ across the continent. Delegates at the RCGP’s national drug and alcohol conference argue that GPs need to stay central to substance treatment, while the ‘Support. Don’t Punish’ campaign holds its third global day of action. Naloxone campaigner Philippe Bonnet, meanwhile, urges DDN readers to identify local champions, create networks and raise awareness of how cost-effective the intervention can be.


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Bleak news as Scotland records its highest ever number of drug-related deaths, 16 per cent up on the previous year. The country still faces a ‘huge challenge in tackling the damaging effects of long-term drug use among an aging cohort’, says community safety minister Paul Wheelhouse. Prof Dame Carol black launches her review into ‘supporting benefit claimants with addictions and potentially treatable conditions back into work’ and ASH tells DDN that the Welsh government’s plans to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places amounts to a misguided attack on an effective harm reduction tool, although the claim in a PHE report that the devices are 95 per cent less harmful than smoking tobacco proves divisive.


More grim news as England follows Scotland to announce its highest drug death toll – although fatalities in Wales are down – prompting Addaction chief Simon Antrobus to call on the government to re-think proposed cuts to local authority health spending. ‘The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise’, he states. The European Court of Justice deals a blow to Scotland’s minimum pricing plans by stating that they could breach EU trade laws, while Portuguese health minister Fernando Leal Da Costa tells the pan-European Lisbon addictions conference that Portugal’s decriminalisation approach is a ‘sensible and rational’ one that other countries could follow. Recovery month sees a vibrant range of activities across the UK, and Dave Marteau’s DDN piece on the risks of diverted methadone ruffles some feathers.


Another month, another stark report – this time from the ACMD, whose second publication on opioid replacement therapy for the Inter-Ministerial Group on Drugs warns that heroin treatment is being threatened by diminishing resources and constant rounds of ‘disruptive re-procurement’. Another group of MPs, the Home Affairs Committee, concludes that the government is rushing, and weakening, its psychoactive substances legislation, while Phoenix Futures cautions that people’s recovery is under threat from a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions in the UK’s over-heated rental market.


Chemsex hits the national headlines when a BMJ editorial calls it a ‘public health priority’ and a scathing report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies says the government’s ‘laughable’ public health responsibility deal for alcohol may be ‘worsening’ the health of the nation. Stirling University’s Rowdy Yates tells DDN that it’s time to get over the ‘residential bad, community good’ attitude, while Ian Sherwood writes that the sector needs to be braver in calling for drug law reform. The government’s spending review makes more cuts to cash-strapped local authorities, sending further shivers through a drug treatment sector expecting the worst and increasing demand for a meaningful drug strategy in the new year.


Plans are already well under way for the ninth national service user involvement conference, Get the picture. See you there!