What a long strange trip it’s been

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When DDN launched way back in 2004 Tony Blair was prime minister, the NTA was just three years old, and the money was flowing into drug treatment. Today the sector, and the country, are very different places.

2004 The year starts with cannabis being moved from class B to class C, a status it would manage to retain for a full five years before yo-yoing back up again. The government launches its Alcohol harm reduction strategy for England, which the BMJ quickly dismisses as the ‘dampest of squibs’. Any government serious about addressing the issue would increase the price, the journal states – ‘it’s the one measure that will reliably reduce harm.’

November 2004 DDN Magazine
Read the first edition of DDN Magazine

2005 In a perhaps naïve attempt to usher in a culture of civilised, continental-style alcohol consumption, the provisions of the 2003 Licensing Act come into force, allowing theoretical 24-hour drinking and generating predictably apocalyptic headlines. The government re-classifies magic mushrooms to class A, and – not for the last time – Britons are identified as among Europe’s biggest consumers of cocaine.

2006 The government warns drugs gangs to ‘be afraid’ as it launches the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), while – in a sign of how much times have changed – the sector expresses disappointment that this year’s increase in the Pooled Treatment Budget is ‘only’ 28 per cent rather than the 40 per cent first promised. Scotland’s ban on smoking in public places comes into force, with England, Wales and Northern Ireland following the next year.

2007 The government begins consulting on its next drug strategy, pledging to focus on ‘educating the young and protecting the vulnerable’, while almost 9,000 people fill in the NTA’s user satisfaction survey, with effective care plans and ‘being treated with respect’ identified as key positives. The RSA’s Drugs – facing facts report calls for a shift from a criminal justice to a health-based approach, while the Independent Working Group on Drug Consumption Rooms recommends that UK pilot schemes be established – 12 years later not one will have been allowed.

2008 The global financial crisis hits, setting the scene for the austerity policies that would later see funding for treatment and other services slashed. The government’s ten-year Drugs: protecting families and communities strategy launches, with offers of support to people who use drugs in return for ‘responsibility’. Transform calls it a ‘miserable regurgitation of past mistakes’ while, depressingly, two thirds of respondents to a MORI poll believe that people infected with HIV through injecting drug use have ‘only themselves to blame’. The abstinence v harm reduction wars continue, with Alliance policy officer Peter McDermott branding ‘recovery’ as ‘jargon for state drugs apparatchiks’. DDN’s first service user conference, Nothing about us without us, draws 600 delegates – three times the projected number.

2009 The Scottish Government announces its plans for MUP by stating that ‘strong drink will no longer be sold for pocket money prices’, heralding the beginnings of a legal battle with the industry that will drag on for the best part of a decade. Home secretary Alan Johnson sacks ACMD chair David Nutt for stating that alcohol is more harmful than ecstasy, LSD or cannabis and, in what will become something of a familiar scenario, the government also ignores the ACMD’s recommendation to downgrade MDMA to class B.

2010 In another soon-to-be-familiar scenario the EMCDDA announces that the number of new drugs reported to it is the biggest ever. NHS figures show that Scotland’s rate of chronic liver disease has tripled in the last 15 years, and the death toll in the first ever drug-related outbreak of anthrax – the result of contaminated heroin – reaches double figures. The Drug strategy 2010 is published to a lukewarm response, with DrugScope questioning how its aims could realistically be delivered in the current economic climate.

2011 The government publishes its Health and social care bill, setting out plans to transfer responsibility for public health to local authorities and described by the King’s Fund as ‘the biggest shake-up of the NHS since its inception’. The country’s ‘heroin drought’ continues, leading to warnings of increased overdose rates when supplies become more plentiful, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy – which includes ex-presidents and a former UN secretary general – calls for an end to the ‘criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation’ of people who use drugs.

2012 New synthetic drugs are now being detected in the EU at the rate of one per week, say EMCDDA and Europol, while a UNAIDS document reveals 170,000 new HIV infections in Eastern Europe, mainly via contaminated injecting equipment. Colorado and Washington become the first US states to vote to legalise cannabis, while boss of the fledgling Public Health England (PHE), Duncan Selbie, promises to ensure that drug treatment is evidence-led and says that moving public health to local government is a ‘stroke of genius’.

2013 PHE starts its work, officially taking over the NTA’s responsibilities, while outgoing UKDPC chief Roger Howard warns that people still don’t fully appreciate the ‘profound reshaping of public spending’ on the way. Signifying how the drugs landscape is changing, EMCDDA says the internet is becoming a ‘game changer’ for distribution and the National Aids Trust calls for appropriate support for people involved in the ‘chemsex’ scene.

2014 In contrast to the coming years, Scotland’s drug-related death total falls by 9 per cent, although fatalities are rising south of the border. More than a third of services questioned for a DrugScope report say their funding has been cut, while the following year the organisation itself will go into liquidation, citing the worsening financial situation.

2015 The new majority Conservative government announces its ‘landmark’ blanket NPS ban – which will become the following year’s controversial Psychoactive Substances Act – and its spending review reduces shrinking levels of local authority funding yet further. In what is to become a depressingly familiar announcement, Scotland and England both record their highest levels of drug-related deaths.

2016 The CMO revises recommended alcohol consumption levels, making them among the lowest in the world, while the bleak financial news keeps coming with 70 per cent of local directors of public health saying they expect their drug and alcohol services to face cuts. Rodrigo Duterte goes on the presidential campaign trail in the Philippines promising to kill people who sell and use drugs, and wins, while people in the UK also go to the polls – to vote on something called Brexit.

2017 The Drug strategy 2017 is published as Lifeline shuts up shop after 50 years and the ACMD says funding cuts are now the biggest threat to treatment recovery outcomes and a ‘catalyst for disaster’. The Welsh Government announces its own plans for minimum pricing, and the National Crime Agency (NCA) issues a warning about fentanyl use in the UK as America’s opioid crisis sees overdose levels quadruple since the turn of the century.

2018 The NHS sets out its plan for England to be the first place in the world to eliminate hep C, while the Royal College of Physicians comes out for decriminalisation and Canada legalises cannabis for recreational use. Minimum pricing finally comes into force in Scotland and, worryingly, the NCA says modern slavery referrals of minors are up by two thirds, mainly because of county lines gangs.

2019 County lines activity is still on the up, as is crack use, and City Roads becomes the field’s latest casualty. Prisons continue to struggle with rising NPS use and Release warns that councils are providing ‘drastically insufficient’ levels of naloxone. And 12 years after the RSA’s call for a shift from a criminal justice to a health-based approach, and with government business consumed by Brexit, the Health and Social Care Committee calls for…a shift from a criminal justice to a health-based approach. Whatever happens, however, DDN will be there to report it – thanks for sticking with us.

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