Review of the year

Hanging on in there

Another year of tightened purse strings and record drug deaths for a weary and beleaguered sector, compounded by the shock closure of one of its biggest names

JANUARY The year starts on a comparatively upbeat note, with an evidence review from PHE finding that 60 per cent of England’s opioid users are now in treatment – a high rate internationally – with rates of HIV infection among injecting drug users remaining at just 1 per cent. High drug-related death figures and low rates of abstinence from opiates after three and six months of treatment, however, are cause for concern, it warns. Barack Obama, meanwhile, marks the end of his presidency by commuting hundreds of ‘unduly long sentences for drug crimes’, in sharp contrast to the ‘just say no’ rhetoric soon to be espoused by his successor.

FEBRUARY DDN’s annual service user conference hits double figures with One Life, another vibrant day of debate and networking that sees delegates from across the country gather to make this tenth event the best yet. ‘You have voices, you’re at risk, your friends and family have died,’ Collective Voice head Paul Hayes tells the conference. ‘These stories need to be heard.’

MARCH Durham Constabulary takes a bold step by announcing its intention to offer heroin-assisted treatment to problem drug users, while the Liberal Democrats call for possession of drugs for personal use to be decriminalised as a way of easing the overcrowding problem in Britain’s increasingly volatile jails.

APRIL President Trump dismays activists and harm reductionists as he signals a return to 1980s-style prevention campaigns, while closer to home the National Crime Agency issues a warning about the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and its analogues, which worryingly appear to be making inroads into the UK drug market.

MAY The closure of Lifeline after almost 50 years sends shockwaves through the sector, with CGL stepping in to take over many of the contracts for its 80,000 service users. ‘It’s easy for the field to think that this is all the result of big bad commissioners and funding constraints,’ former board member and ex-UKDPC chief Roger Howard tells DDN. ‘But in this circumstance I think that narrative probably needs to be challenged.’

JUNE An optimistic month for the harm reduction community as a new report moves Glasgow’s proposed consumption room a step closer and one of the country’s leading public health bodies calls for music festivals to provide drug testing facilities ‘as standard’. Activists worldwide also take to the streets for the fifth annual Support. Don’t Punish day of action.

JULY The much delayed Drug strategy 2017 finally sees the light of day, and gets a mixed reception from the field. While the government had driven a tough law enforcement approach it had to ‘go hand in hand with prevention and recovery,’ said home secretary Amber Rudd. The sheer scale of the challenge is aptly illustrated by analysis from the King’s Fund revealing that local authorities have been forced to reduce planned public health spending on services like drug and alcohol treatment by £85m as a result of government cuts.

AUGUST Scotland yet again records its highest ever number of drug-related deaths, at close to 900. The figure is 23 per cent higher than the previous year and more than double that of a decade ago, making the country’s fatality rate the highest in the EU, while deaths in England and Wales are also at their highest ever. Meanwhile, Trump instructs his administration to use ‘all appropriate emergency and other authorities’ to respond to opioid crisis in the country, which has seen overdoses quadruple since the turn of the century. ‘Not coincidentally’ the level of opioid prescribing has quadrupled over the same period, points out the interim report from his own Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

SEPTEMBER Hot on the heels of last month’s bleak drug death figures and the King’s Fund’s worrying study from July, a report from the government’s own advisers, the ACMD, warns that funding cuts are now the single biggest threat to drug treatment recovery outcomes. A lack of spending on drug treatment is ‘short sighted and a catalyst for disaster,’ states its recovery committee chair, Annette Dale-Perera, while new figures from PHE map out the disproportionate impact problem drinking has on deprived communities.

OCTOBER The Welsh Government introduces a bill to create a minimum unit price for alcohol, despite the Scots’ attempts to do the same still languishing in legal purgatory. Release marks its 50th anniversary with a powerful pop-up exhibition, ‘The Museum of Drug Policy’, while Russell Brand’s interview with DDN proves divisive.

NOVEMBER ‘We constantly need to be saying, “Is our service right? Is it fit for purpose?’” Haringey’s Sarah Hart says in our comprehensive look at the commissioning landscape. ‘And I’m not sure that without a tender process people would do that.’ To illustrate the ever-changing nature of the challenges she describes, the latest NDTMS figures show a 23 per cent increase in the number of people seeking treatment for crack, along with a 12 per cent increase in those presenting with combined crack and opiate problems. And Scotland’s minimum pricing plans finally get the go-ahead after five years of legal wrangles, as the UK Supreme Court’s ‘landmark’ ruling rejects the Scotch Whisky Association’s final appeal.

DECEMBER As another year comes to an end, plans are well underway for the 11th annual DDN service user involvement conference, your chance to have your say on the future of the sector. See you on 22 February in Birmingham!