As the old Chinese curse has it, ‘may you live in interesting times’…
A truly seismic year for world events saw the triumph of populist policies, and politicians, across the globe – including one head of state elected after a campaign promise to eradicate drug users.
As people are getting over their festive hangovers, the chief medical officer starts 2016 by revising the UK’s alcohol guidelines. The official recommendation is now that men should drink no more than 14 units per week, bringing the level in line with that for women and making the UK’s recommended consumption levels among the lowest in the world. An early day motion on the government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill, meanwhile, brands the document ‘evidence-free and prejudice-rich’.
The ninth annual service user conference in Birmingham sees powerful presentations, heated debate and a rousing closing speech from Big Issue founder John Bird. ‘The skills you used to score and beg – use them.’ he told delegates. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have valuable skills!’ As austerity policies continue to bite, a survey of directors of public health finds that 70 per cent of them expect drug and alcohol services in their area to face cuts.
The bleak news continues as a report by the Recovery Partnership finds that nearly 60 per cent of residential services have reported a decrease in funding, along with almost 40 per cent of community services. The government, meanwhile, delays its beleaguered Psychoactive Substances Act.
The UN convenes its first special session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) on drugs since 1998, with UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov telling the session that the world needs drug policies that ‘put people first’. The event’s outcome document, however, receives a decidedly lukewarm response – despite some welcome language on human rights and harm reduction, the need for consensus renders it ‘watered down’ and ‘generally a huge disappointment’, Transform’s Steve Rolles tells DDN. The seemingly unstoppable flow of new psychoactive substances continues in Europe, with EMCDDA now monitoring almost 600 of them – a sixth of which were reported for the first time in 2015.
In one of the grimmest developments yet in the ‘war on drugs’, Rodrigo Duterte is elected president of the Philippines, vowing to eradicate crime in the country in six months – a plan, he says, that would see him ‘fatten the fishes’ in Manila bay on the bodies of dead criminals, drug dealers and drug users. Closer to home, the Queen’s Speech contains major reforms to the UK’s struggling prison system – ‘the biggest shake-up’ since the Victorian era, says the government – although the Prison Bill’s chief architect, justice secretary Michael Gove, will be sacked the following month. MDMA, meanwhile, is once again European young people’s ‘stimulant drug of choice’, according to EMCDDA, with figures showing increased levels of use in nine out of 12 countries, along with stronger pills. The Psychoactive Substances Act, meanwhile, finally limps into UK law.
As the UK’s Brexit vote sends shockwaves through the world, consensus on the country’s drug legislation continues to shift as a report by the two major public health bodies calls for personal possession of all illegal substances to be decriminalised. A Times editorial on the document goes further, stating that full legalisation should ‘still be the ultimate goal’. Alcohol-related hospital admissions continue their upward curve, and the idea that problems in the prison service are ‘all down to NPS and overcrowding’ is naïve, former governor of Brixton and Belmarsh, John Podmore, tells DDN. ‘It’s looking for a quick fix, and there is no quick fix in this.’
‘The chances of political time and energy being focused on addressing alcohol and drug treatment are negligible,’ Collective Voice head Paul Hayes writes in DDN as he considers Brexit’s implications for the sector. While this may be useful in preventing ‘renewed ideological attacks’ in the short term, he says, the sector needs to come together to ‘find anew narrative, as persuasive to local authorities as previous harm reduction and crime-led narratives have been to central government’.
Another bleak milestone for Scotland as the country records its highest ever level of drug-related deaths for the third year in a row. With over 700 fatalities in 2015 – nearly two per day, and more than double the figure from a decade ago – the statistics are ‘a national tragedy’ and ‘the ultimate indicators’ of the country’s entrenched health inequalities, says Scottish Drugs Forum chief David Liddell. More than 300 NGOs sign an open letter to the UN’s drug control bodies urging them to call for an immediate stop to the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders in the Philippines by president Duterte.
Hot on the heels of last month’s grim figures from Scotland, the ONS reveals that the number of heroin-related deaths in England and Wales has doubled in the space of four years, to more than 1,200. The highest number of deaths, for the third year running, are in the North East, while in the Philippines more than 3,000 people are now thought to have fallen victim to Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’.
The Glasgow City Joint Integration Board approves the development of a business case for the UK’s first consumption room, along with provision of heroin-assisted treatment, generating predictably outraged headlines in some newspapers. Meanwhile, France opens its first consumption room in Paris, with another to follow in Strasbourg.
As the world digests the news that Donald Trump is to become the 45th US president, another set of American voting results see recreational cannabis legalised in four more states, including California.
A year that many people will be keen to see the back of draws to a close, and still no sign of the 2016 Drug Strategy. However, preparations are well under way for DDN’s milestone tenth annual service user conference. With drug-related deaths continuing to rise and resources diminishing, the need for strong, targeted, effective service user involvement has never been stronger. Join us in Birmingham and let’s make a difference!