Addiction challenges the belief that prevention is always better…

GRAEME CORBETT argues that Amy Winehouse’s death proves that the “war on drugs” has been lost


It will have escaped no one’s notice that a famous drug addict and alcoholic died over the weekend.  Devastating for Amy Winehouse’s family and perhaps the greatest tragedy was just how horrifically predictable it was. Despite being arguably the single most talented musician the UK has produced in a generation if not longer, even so latterly her fame owed more to her addictions than her extraordinary musical output.  I remembered seeing her on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, at best drunk, where Simon Amstell (who from the quiz masters’ chair has mercilessly humiliated any number of stars to within an inch of their careers) was moved to say this isn’t a quiz show anymore it’s an intervention. Humorous yes, but a comment made with sincere concern. It’s tragic I recalled that before I recalled seeing her at T in the Park.

I was incredibly taken with Russell Brand’s Guardian blog where he pays a beautiful tribute to Amy Winehouse but also discusses addiction more generally and his own recovery.  It is the final paragraph of his exceptionally well written entry where he makes more sense on what our response to addiction should be than I’ve read in a long, long time.  He argues brilliantly that we must change the way we look at addicts and addiction.

It would be so easy, and has proven so at various points in the past, to say why should we all have to pay for a drunk’s medical treatment, they did it to themselves?  Why should we have to pay for a junkie’s treatment, they’re junkies?  You’ll all remember reading something to this effect.  But the truth of the matter is that today and tomorrow somewhere in the UK an addict will chase the dragon for the last time; a drunk will throw back their last drink.  This will be because either something in their head tells them that they can’t go on like this or because the damage to their body takes its final toll.

We all know about the George Bests and Keith Moons of the world but we all also know of someone quite anonymous for whom we fear the worst.  Why am I posting this on Labour Hame?  Simply put because we in the labour movement are supposed to stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable, and dare I say less than popular, groups within our society.  How best do we respond to addiction?  I would argue that ‘the war on drugs’ was lost a long time ago and pretty soundly beaten we were too.  We tried and, make no mistake, failed to make inroads into drug abuse by cutting it off at supply and therefore I would suggest that the bulk of public expenditure into addiction should no longer be loaded in favour of prevention, expedient in political and media terms though that may be, and instead load it in favour of treatment.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that we give up on prevention or that we should do anything but continue to warn, particularly young people, of the dangers of drink and drugs.  But bitter memories tell us no matter what information is communicated, no matter how well it is communicated, there will always be addicts.  And so the choice is the continued criminalisation of this group of ill people or trying something different.  If the upshot is that fewer families suffer the heartbreak being experienced by the Winehouse family then surely that is justification in itself?  What we’re doing right now isn’t working.

Graeme lives in Edinburgh and works for a Scottish Labour MSP – he tweets as @Graemecorbett

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14 thoughts on “Addiction challenges the belief that prevention is always better…

  1. Good article Graeme, agree, from my own view not sure if addiction should be treated as a disease however I can’t imagine anyone sets out to become an addict, many factors lead to it and should be addressed.

    It is also easy to focus on the drink and drugs however addiction comes in many forms and it is interesting how society views these differently.

    Well done, didn’t need the red pen once 🙂

    1. Thanks for comments and leaving the red pen at home!

      I would love to see stigma removed from addiction as not a bad starting point!

  2. This, 100%

    It’s not just about the level of harm that addiction causes to the user, the War on Drugs is responsible for the majority of the harms that addiction causes to society. It encourages vicious, brutal criminality in the supply chain – people being attacked with drills on Maryhill road – and petty criminal behaviour from addicts which make people feel unsafe in their homes.

    It has to end, and it has to end completely. Starting to treat drug addiction as a health problem instead of a criminal one is a vital first step, which has worked well elsewhere in Europe, but it’s not enough.

    1. Very generous with your praise Aidan, thanks. I can’t agree with you more that a sea change in approach would be more than helpful. If we see addicts not as criminals but people in need of help and support I’m sure we’ll get further than we are.

  3. Graeme I agree with the sentiment the drugs don’t work, and neither do the solutions. The disease model of addiction espoused by Russell is a construct that worked well for him: politically, however, it plays into the agenda of those who would seek to divert funds away from harm reduction approaches. Both approaches have merit for those that they help, and none for those that they don’t . I would argue that addictions work needs to be lifted away from health and the medical model. There is growing evidence of strong causal relationship between certain learning disorders and addiction issues, and that interventions based upon sound psychology, rather than psychiatry, are what works. There is a key demographic, a niche group, for whom mainstream services and mainstream thinking do not work: they are likely to be polydrug users, have intermittent contact with services, and are often only saved by their involvement with the criminal justice system. This group cost the taxpayer, and wider society, a great deal. Working with them meaningfully does not generate headline “results” within election cycles, it is long term stuff. Right now, in Edinburgh for example, we are about to consign models of resettlement that cross social care and health boundaries to the dustbin as part of a wider resource grab between different departments within CEC and politically, as part of an attempt by CEC to save public sector jobs at the expense of voluntary sector ones. What is needed is clear direction, from the centre, to local authorities about how to commission services for this group. The concordat of 2007 released previously ring fenced funds and removed clear outcomes for this group. We need to go back and look again at the outcomes agreements and see what can be done.

    1. Naturally I will defer here!

      I can’t answer all your points but I will say that approaching addicts as people who are ill in concert with investment in harm reduction don’t need to be mutually exclusive and wouldn’t like to see them dichotomised into an expedient false choice.

      1. Graeme – a trans-theoretical approach is what is required. Recognising the disease model is one of many, that works for some, is what would be useful. Plurality and a focus on what works, is really what I am arguing for, I think.

  4. Do we not treat drug addiction as a disease already? There are certainly drug treatment waiting time targets and statistics which would indicate that.

    Or are you talking about de-criminalising drugs? There is a strong argument for that but I suspect politicians from every party are too scared of a tabloid-driven backlash to publicly support that at this point in time.

    1. I agree that we must now seriously consider things that only a short while ago were considered unthinkable. De-criminalisation/legalisation is surely one of them.

      Our current “war on drugs” has patently not worked – there are more people addicted than ever before, and the results of this addiction in the form of broken families and increased drug related crime is all too clear.

    2. Not enough Indy.

      I think what I’m saying that we should spend more time and money on treating addictions of all kinds. Still too much effort and money concerned with criminalisation.

      Either way it would certainly require courage and a thick skin to make the necessary bold decisions.

      1. Is it criminalisation of users though – or suppliers?

        Don’t get me wrong, I am not against looking at the legal status of drugs but even if they were de-criminalised in some way e.g. drugs on prescription we can’t assume that it would end the illegal trade and as long as that exists I don’t see that it can be ignored.

  5. Good article Graeme. The war on drugs is really the war on the poor and disenfranchised. Criminalising addicts feeds the criminal justice system. Methadone prescription creates its own problems, it might work for some, but it was also present in 32% of drug deaths in Scotland in 2010
    Doctors get a kickback for every methadone prescription they write – an argument for another time.
    Prescribing heroin has improved health outcomes and reduced acquisitive crime in areas where it has been trialled, even Jack Straw thinks its a good idea….
    This approach is about as ‘different’ as it gets.
    Will Scottish Labour, or any other political party go out to bat on these issues? Nah, didn’t think so.

  6. I am very much in favour of decriminalising drugs, & of viewing addiction as an illness.

    However, one thing is quite obvious – for some people the use of drugs is creative, why have so many musicians died from drugs or drink? Because for some people it is a necessary fuel.

    Quite why that is I don’t know, but it’s a well established phenomena by now.

    Not all users of drugs are the same (& alcohol is probably the most dangerous one in terms of the widespread damage it causes), so there is never going to be a one size fits all answer to the problem.

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