Drug strategy to tackle 300,000 problem users, says PM

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The government will aim to provide rehab for 300,000 drug users who carry out half of all thefts, robberies and burglaries, Boris Johnson has said.

The prime minister said the 10-year strategy for England and Wales would also tackle 2,000 county lines gangs.

The £300m gangs crackdown will be joined by the “largest ever investment in treatment”, the government said.

Other measures include using dealers’ seized phones to message clients and discourage drug use.

Speaking on a visit to Merseyside Police headquarters, Mr Johnson said: “Overwhelmingly, the problem is caused by 300,000 people whose lives are simply chaotic, who are torn apart by their own addiction.

“You’ve got to help them, you’ve got to do treatment. But you’ve also got to come down hard on the county lines gangs.”

Mr Johnson said he wanted to break the cycle of arresting and imprisoning the same drug users “time and time again”.

He said the strategy, which is due to be published in full later on Monday, would also “come down tougher” on so-called lifestyle drug users.

The prime minister previously told the Sun on Sunday the government would look at taking away their passports or drivers’ licences to discourage them from feeding demand for the trade.

Labour said reforms were “long overdue” and cuts to police budgets had allowed gangs to grow.

Drug deaths in England and Wales are at their highest level since records began in 1993, with 4,561 people dying last year.

County lines gangs are urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines.

They are notorious for exploiting children to work as couriers and forcing vulnerable people to let them use their homes to conceal or deal drugs.

The government said operations targeting these gangs had led to the closure of 1,500 lines so far, with more than 7,400 arrests and more than 4,000 vulnerable children and adults safeguarded.

Graph showing rise in deaths from drugs

Also included in its strategy is the expansion of testing on arrest, with police forces being encouraged to direct drug users towards treatment or other interventions.

Judges will also be given the power to order testing on anyone serving a community sentence for drug-related offences and those who test positive could be jailed.

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Analysis box by Mark Easton, home editor

The political debate over drugs strategy is about whether the problem should be seen primarily as a criminal justice matter or a public health matter.

The tone of the Home Office press release is all about cracking down, stamping out the scourge of drug crime with a focus on the 300,000 heroin and crack addicts who, the government says, cause such misery for communities up and down the country.

But almost hidden away in the official briefing note is a line which says the strategy will see the government commit to “the largest ever single increase in investment in treatment and recovery”.

We don’t know the details of spending to be announced later today, but £300m has been set aside for the criminal justice system over the next three years. The question is how much will be available for treatment and recovery services.

Various figures for additional spending have been mooted, from £580m to £900m – which could suggest a significant new investment in health interventions in line with the recommendation in Dame Carol Black’s drugs review published earlier this year.

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Dr Laura Garius, policy lead at Release, which campaigns for a public health approach to drug laws, said increased funding for treatment was a positive step, but the focus on punishment for supplying drugs or using them recreationally “ensures that the UK remains firmly in a failed war on drugs”.

Marie Edmonds, a former drug user who founded the charity Aspirations Program to help people with addictions recover, said the government appeared to be proposing more community-based drug rehabilitation orders.

“I was on one of those pilots, they don’t work,” she told the BBC. Instead, she said people needed to go into detox with specialist treatment providers where they could address the root causes of their issues.

A government-commissioned review of drug policy by Dame Carol Black found that spending on treatment for drug abuse fell by 17% in the four years up to 2018-19, with a 28% cut for young people’s services.

The review said provision for treatment “urgently needs repair”, and funding should be increased by £552m a year within five years.

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The Home Office said crimes associated with drugs cost society nearly £20bn a year in England alone.

It said that includes the burglaries, robberies and shop thefts carried out by more than 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England and as well as nearly half of all homicides, which are driven by drugs.

Other plans to discourage people from buying illegal drugs will include police using dealers’ seized phones to message their clients to direct them to support and discourage use – a move the government says will help ensure no-one feels anonymous when buying drugs.

There are also plans to pilot a behaviour change campaign on university campuses to understand what messages discourage drug misuse at an early stage.

The strategy comes as the House of Commons Speaker promised to raise allegations that drugs were being used in Parliament with the Metropolitan Police, after the Sunday Times found traces of cocaine in lavatory areas.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse said he would be surprised if there were no drug users among the thousands of people working in Parliament because it was so widespread, but said the police should investigate. “If I saw it and witnessed it, I would report it,” he added.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told BBC Breakfast that over the past 10 years government had cut drug treatment by hundreds of millions of pounds and reduced the numbers of neighbourhood police.

During that time, there had been a big increase in class A drug use and the trade had become “more violent and more exploitative”, she said.

“We do really badly need action. The question is whether it’s going to live up to the scale of the treatment needed,” she said.

Additional reporting by Anthony Reuben, BBC Reality Check

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