Let’s take Weymouth’s drug problems by the balls

As a health and social affairs journalist, over the years I’ve had my eyes opened by what I have found. I do not follow any specific ideology, but I’m knowledge lead rather than dogma lead. Given the real and pressing drug problem that affects tourists and residents alike in the town, I want to raise some radical yet proven policies that I have evidence to believe would resolve the problems that we face in Weymouth.

You’re probably fixing on the nastiest drug off all!

You cannot blame somebody for the personal circumstances they face where they learn that drugs make them happy. You the reader may enjoy a beer but alcohol costs the government £47 billion a year. That’s roughly equivalent to 40% of the national NHS budget.

Let’s look at a Public Health England report from 2016. “By using methodologically similar studies from four high income countries, Rehm and colleagues estimated the total costs of alcohol to be 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 (27), equivalent to £47 billion in 2016. The majority of these were indirect costs (72% of all costs), followed by health care costs (13%), other direct costs (12%) and law enforcement costs (3%).” The report explained that “indirect costs of alcohol consumption, for example, lost productivity due to absenteeism, unemployment, decreased output, reduced earnings potential and lost working years due to premature pension or death.”

So in most cases you the person reading this might just be enjoying the most dangerous drug of all  in the country in terms of sheer societal costs.

‘Hard’ drugs?

With this extremely dangerous drug legal and prevalent among the public, we must look at the issue of so-called hard drugs. These will include heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine that’s caused people so much problems when they pass the train station and perhaps go off track in the parks and wetlands of Weymouth. There is also acquisitive crime that affects traders, and people who are robbed or aggressively begged from as desperate people try to find £100 a day for their habits to stick in their arms. 

A hard fact of life for a homeless person is that prison is actually a release from the struggles that they face everyday. They have a roof over their head, they have routine, and a guarantee of eating everyday. Punishment such as prison is not a punishment for the most desperate junkies on the street. This is not to say that prisons are anything comfortable and wonderful – they are not the holiday camps that we will believe to be the case reading the Daily Mail. To you reading this they will be hellholes. 

The problem

The so-called war on drugs was enacted in the 1970s. Given the technology and the sheer amounts of money put into it, you’d have thought that we would have won it by now!

No. Generation after generation of people developed habits nonetheless. I have spoken to a former undercover policeman who said that after a six-month operation to bust the top dealer of a major city in the UK, having put his life at extreme danger, his unit stopped the drug supply in the city for 24 hours. The local junkies barely got flu symptoms before another supplier came to support them. I am convinced that in Weymouth there is no major drug dealer, but they reside in London or Bournemouth and the supply comes in through the train station. 14 year old kids coming in on a free day after Weymouth may well being given a package to give someone when they get off the train in return for their train tickets and a bit of spending money. It might be as simple as that.

We need to find policies that work. There are policies out there that do work, and now let’s look at a couple of them.

Harm reduction

Safe injecting rooms are places where drug users can use safe sterilised equipment to administer their fix. In Weymouth that would stop kids finding needles on the beach and in the woodlands and wetlands where they like to play. In having clean gear the health issues around blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis are vastly reduced. In fact many towns and cities around the world have actually put a cost saving on such safe injecting rooms. 

A 2016 research paper in the Journal of Drug Issues showed that “We estimate the economic costs and benefits of establishing a potential SIF in San Francisco using mathematical models that combine local public health data with previous research on the effects of existing SIFs. We consider potential savings from five outcomes: averted HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections, reduced skin and soft tissue infection (SSTI), averted overdose deaths, and increased medication-assisted treatment (MAT) uptake. We find that each dollar spent on a SIF would generate US$2.33 in savings.”

As someone who worked in health and social affairs journalism for many years, I am of the opinion that we should even go step further. Why not prescribe heroin to those who need it? It costs four times the amount to administer of standard methadone prescription but:

  • the dealers would go bankrupt
  • Acquisitive crime would plummet
  • The police would be a lot less busy tackling drug-related crime
  • We would not see the problems that we see at the train station, the beach or parks
  • Drug users would not be dicing with death in not knowing the strength or content of the drugs they are taking
  • The drug users would also have improved health
  • Our council social services would not be so busy dealing with children damaged by their parents’ drug use

From the layman’s point of view the savings to society could be huge. There have been diamorphine prescription services around the UK, and we are one of a few countries where this is a legally possible. There’s a big but though!

For a doctor or a politician to take radical measures such as this, they must have rock solid evidence of probable success. There is no such evidence nationally or internationally. A 2003 paper from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation could find no studies of sufficient scale that would point to the societal benefits of such a scheme.

There has been small scale yet tantalising evidence though. According to a 2015 article in the Independent newspaper, “A trial in the Netherlands showed that heroin assisted therapy made overall savings of around €13,000 (£9,530) per patient every year, when compared to methadone.”

It is not clear what that €13,000 years saving is composed of – does it include indirect savings or just savings to health?

Research also shows that not every junkie likes being prescribed heroin. Nothing works all the time however – there is the saying that the exception proves the rule!

My thoughts

In being a free thinker you have to let go of dogma and allow evidence to confound your own beliefs. Sadly too many people are steered by their core beliefs. If we all did that we’d still be living in the trees. Closing this article I want to make a suggestion: why don’t we ask the powers that be for a small-scale diamorphine prescription programme with University research to measure the societal impact as well as the health costs saved by running that programme? If it works then we get junkies off the streets and could potentially resolve a lot of problems that tourists and residents alike face in the real and present drug problem in Weymouth. We could benefit towns and cities right across the UK and potentially end of the war on drugs. Being small scale, if it fails then it is a thoroughly thought out failure and we ditch it. How’s that for a challenge?

At the very least we should have safe injection rooms for those that do use and can thereby control where the stuff is used in the town. Wouldn’t that resolve the image problem that this town faces?

Rich Shrubb