Monday, 23 August 2010


Our shilly-shally will we or won't we coalition government is at it again. I grew up in a world where the mantra 'Order. Reorder. Disorder' was drummed into those of us being trained to give out orders. Dave's drug board has come up with a fresh idea.

Drug addict benefit withdrawal considered. Some say withdrawing benefits from drug users would lead them into crime. People dependent on drugs and alcohol who refuse treatment could have their welfare benefits withdrawn under plans being considered by the Home Office. The idea is in a consultation paper on the government's drug strategy for England, Wales and Scotland.

Some experts have suggested that withdrawing benefits could lead addicts into crime and prostitution. The Labour government intended to carry out pilot schemes this year to get drug users into work. Under the plans, addicts who failed to attend a treatment awareness programme would lose welfare benefits. If people are addicted to substances then they will go to any length to get hold of them... benefit isn't enough to sustain a habit anyway" said a user.

However, in May the Social Security Advisory Committee - an independent statutory body - said withdrawing benefits from drug users would lead them into crime and prostitution. The coalition government scrapped the pilot programme - but the Home Office has now revived the idea."

Sooner or later when I gave presentations on drug matters, the question would arise as to why 'drugs' such as alcohol and tobacco were tolerated and the government was happy to receive the tax on these goods. As alcohol abuse in the Armed Forces where I was speaking was far more serious than drug abuse I had a lot of sympathy for the question. I ducked answering it by replying that if coffee and tobacco were new discoveries, we would quite likely ban them. So, let me forestall the cost and acceptance query.

"Important findings ... include the fact that (1) total direct social costs associated with alcohol ($7,427.5 million) are more than double those for all illicit drugs combined ($3,565.5 million); (2) direct alcohol-related health care costs ($3,306.2 million) are nearly three times as high as for all illicit drugs, excluding cannabis ($1,061.6 million), and over 45 times higher than the direct health care costs of cannabis ($73 million); and (3) annual direct costs for health care ($4,440.7 million) are 31 times higher, and annual direct costs for enforcement ($5,407.7 million) are 36 times higher than annual costs for prevention and research ($147.6 million)."
Analysis is drawn from the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey," So, if it is money that is the main driver, there could be bigger savings on something with the same moral credentials. The foregoing are direct costs; anyone who is in a A & E department on any night of the weekend will see what the medical costs are for alcohol. The toll on relationships has not been costed nor miscellaneous costs such as police and street cleaning. However, as I wrote recently, there are some wars one has to recognise as incapable of being worth it. Alcohol abuse will continue largely unabated.

There are other factors to the proposal. "Addicts will have to register" Not very likely is it? Drug habits are not like light switches - there is no plain On or Off position. How likely is it that someone who routinely turns to prostitution or robbery will have the moral fibre to declare themselves as an addict when they know the next step? We do not know how many addicts there are currently undetected by police so any measure of compliance is fruitless.

So, we stop their benefits. In this age of yooman rites it is unlikely that a mere "John Wood is an addict" statement will suffice so there will need to be an investigation, prosecution and enforcement agency established. At what cost? We do not have a perfect record on preventing benefit fraud anyway. Surely no one thinks that the income from benefits is sufficient to fund any sort of addiction. The user will just increase whatever they do now to maintain their purchases. If this is prostitution or robbery we will suffer an increase in those and further costs will be generated.

My understanding is that 'benefits' are not solely money. Charges are abated or excused. If society removes the cash benefit, do these go as well? That leads to eviction and deprivation where the user, their family including children, will go short of food. Here again, there could be increased costs by way of additional social services activities and pressure on the NHS.

We are currently unable to control the importation and distribution of drugs. This will not improve just because we seek to register addicts. The aim of any new legislation seems to be to eradicate drug use - a far greater task that the one we are currently failing to win. The dealers will not just accept that they are out of business and will do all in their power to maintain their hold on their clients. This could include reducing their mark-up on sales.

In the back of my mind is a suspicion that this is not solely about stopping drug taking. That pompous arse Duncan Smith was very keen that he be made made Boss of the new plans. There will be many amongst the turnip Tories who see drug taking and it's milieu as "not very nice" and would like it to be stopped on social grounds alone.

There has been talk of economic benefit of drug legalization. "The report estimates that legalizing drugs would save roughly $48.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $33.1 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $13.7 billion of the savings would results from legalization of marijuana, $22.3 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $12.8 from legalization of other drugs. Those are American figures and ours would be significantly less but not a bad income stream for when times are hard.

A further instance of "wouldn't it be nice if..." occurs in the suggestion that addicts should seek gainful employment if benefits were withdrawn. I cannot imagine too many employers opening their arms wide to recruit someone who is an addict going through whatever it takes to come off drugs. Sure, users would not have to fess up but any worthwhile HR interviewer would get the picture pretty quick and any employment probation period would quite likely have a few days of suspicion making absences or unexplained sickness at work.

Yes - I can see it as something that would seem right to the adherents of what is 'nice' but anyone looking at it as a means to control a serious problem must surely see where things have not been thought through.

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