According to the ONS, England hit another record high for drug-related deaths, with 4,115 deaths from drug poisoning between 2018 and 2019. Alarmingly, this marks the seventh year in a row that this shocking figure has climbed. Those of us from the North East will find it shocking that the region had a “statistically significantly higher rate of deaths relating to drug misuse" than all other English regions (95.0 deaths per million people). This figure is almost triple that of the East of England. 46% of these deaths are heroin related, and this figure has more than doubled in the past eight years.
Clearly the UK’s approach to substance use, which still resembles the Reaganite ‘Just Say No’ ploy, is continuing to flounder and fail. Even the supposedly liberal institution of the University has failed to evolve beyond the cold, reactionary message of “your safety is in your hands”.
Harm reduction offers a more progressive approach. The aim of harm reduction is to treat drug addiction as a public health challenge, not a criminal justice issue. According to Harm Reduction International, “harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights - it focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that they stop using drugs as a precondition of support”.
Despite successes in countries such as Switzerland with its HAT program (designed and proven to steadily decrease the number of drugs and AIDS related deaths in the early 90s), harm reduction approaches remain controversial. Some detractors argue that harm reduction only encourages further drug use, and, that when given the freedom to do so, the public will act illicitly.
The biggest argument in favour of harm reduction measures, such as an increased availability in drug-testing kits, is that drug culture has never gone away, and it never will. By adopting harm reduction, governments can shift their efforts away from vilification and punishment, and toward a concern for the safety and humanity of users.
It is important to remember that a harm reduction-oriented response to the growing drugs crisis will not lead to local dealers setting up stalls at the farmer’s market, nor would heroin replace cans of cider for secondary school children. It may be some time before we see a true harm reduction approach to the drugs crisis from the Conservative party of 'law and order', but perhaps the likes of Boris Johnson (who admitted to using cocaine and cannabis), Michael Gove (cocaine), and Rory Stewart (opium), might prefer a softer approach to drug use in our country.