ADDICTION RECOVERY IN GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
Tackling drugs, changing communities
KATHY GYNGELL reports [in March 2008 Addiction Today journal] on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s “Tackling Drugs, Changing Communities” and asks if a redefinition of drug use could shift policy from controlling supply abroad to prevention and recovery at home
February’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association week-long conference in the heart of Westminster put the UK’s recreational drug use and addiction problems into global perspective. It demonstrated the huge pressure that the illicit drugs trade is putting on some of the poorest countries of the world.
Attending were consumer, transit and producer countries. As well as Canada and Australia (consumers), there were delegates from Latin America, Jamaica, Trinidad, India and Mauritius, affected by all aspects of the global drugs trade. Of the new West African ‘transit’ countries, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Cameroon sent delegates, reflecting the exposure of their impoverished economies to the massive surge in cocaine trafficking through the Gulf of Guinea over the past three years.
But this first-world/third-world meeting missed an opportunity: for the UK participants – the Canadian and the Australians, too – to acknowledge the root of problem, to identify responsibilities as well as their expectations of cooperation. It was a moment to recognise that this trade is driven by the west’s vast addiction problems, by its insatiable demand for recreational drugs, by the social and psychological malaise now symptomatic of affluent societies.
SPIN AND PR CLOUD THE SCENE.
The platform speeches were characterised by an uneasy mix of truth and spin. Unexpectedly, a sense of first-world arrogance and insensitivity pervaded some of the MP-hosted sessions on Reducing Drugs Supply and Social Impact from an International Perspective and Tackling The Links Between Drugs And Crime.
‘Feel good’ presentations from Tony McNulty MP, minister for Security, Counter Terrorism, Crime and Policing of the UK National Drugs Strategy, and from Bill Hughes, ceo of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, were marked by “euphemism, question begging and cloudy vagueness”. More like a PR exercise, they barely touched on how to tackle the ineffectiveness of the UK drugs strategy to reduce demand at home or failure to control supply across our borders.
McNulty asserted the success of the UK’s drug strategy. But he avoided the key issue of the UK’s sharply rising use of and demand for cocaine. Hughes also blurred the line between words and actions. His picture of strategic intelligence and international cooperation gave no measure of what has been achieved or not, of the scale of the trade, nor of Soca’s effectiveness.
NEGATIVE INDICES ON THE RISE.
“In relation to drug use, we are just beginning to realise the enormous impact on society of not a huge but a tiny problem,” commented Professor Neil McKeganey of Scotland. He brought an end to the conference’s good news, painting a bleak picture of the huge amount of damage caused by relatively low levels of drug use.
It made Tomas Halberg’s call for all to adopt Sweden’s abstinence-led drugs policy more, rather than less, relevant. [AT editor’s note: Sweden’s high-quality outcomes have been praised by the UN, and more rigorously examined than any other country by sceptics unwilling to admit that an abstinence-led policy works better than others – Sweden also adopts harm reduction, but not at the expense of the goal of drug-free lives.]
Statistics amassed by McKeganey’s research unit at Glasgow University showed every negative index to be on the rise – from blood-borne viruses, recorded drug offences, problem drug use and community safety to the damage caused to children. Scotland, he told us, is experiencing the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of young people dying from drugs each year.
Raised to any higher levels, drug use would, he argued, destabilise and corrupt the politics and economies of western democracies. Describing it as a threat on a par with global warming and terrorism, he asked the pertinent question for every country represented: “How much illegal drug use can society afford?”.
These contrasting critical assessments of UK policy must have left the Commonwealth delegates bemused. Is the UK’s problem big or small? Are we in control or not? Who is telling the truth?
GHANA HIT BY EUROPEAN DRUG USE.
Both McNulty and Hughes left after their own sessions. They did not wait to listen to Kwamena Bartels MP, Ghana’s minister of the Interior, who spoke later in the programme. “Ghana in the past three years has had significant increases in drugs trafficking, reflecting an increase through the whole continent and West Africa in particular which traffickers are increasingly using to smuggle cocaine from Latin America into Europe,” he despaired.
Bartels spoke of the tons of cocaine offloaded onto the beaches of the Gulf of Guinea, of his country’s determined attempts to cooperate with the United Nation’s global container project, of the impossible task of patrolling 600 kilometres of coastline with only one vessel too old to pursue the containers shipments – whether or not alerted by Soca’s advanced intelligence network.
Not only are fishing villages targeted in the transit trade from Latin America to Europe, but there is a spill-over of drug dependency into local communities and recruitment of aspirant migrants to the UK as drugs mules. The traffickers easily exploit their impoverished economies and weak maritime capabilities.
Only David Partington and Rabbi Sufrin among the week’s platform speakers identified the west’s drug use as a moral issue in that much of the crisis which the UN and UK were enjoining their impoverished countries to help contain originated from their own citizens.
ONE PSYCHIATRIST FOR A COUNTRY.
At least Ghana managed to put 1,475 people into drugs treatment last year. Perhaps more shocking was the revelation that Sierra Leone has only one addiction psychiatrist to rehabilitate thousands of exploited children. “In our country, there is only one addiction psychiatrist to attend to the all the needs of the thousands of former child soldiers manipulated by drugs into killing,” confirmed Ibrahim Bundu MP, from Sierra Leone.
REDUCE DEMAND BEFORE SUPPLY.
Bravely, the conference did put up for debate the UN and UK’s favoured and expensive solution to the global drugs problem: namely, reducing supply in countries of production.
Philippa Rodgers of the Afghan Drugs Inter-departmental Unit of the Foreign and Common-wealth Office was admirable in pulling no punches regarding the failure of counter-narcotics and development strategy, of the increase, not decrease, in opium production in Afghanistan.
Independent consultant David Mansfield set out with clarity the almost impossible difficulties of eradication policies in Afghanistan. A similar line was taken by Ricardo Soberon, consultant on Drugs and Security, in relation to Peru.
But if anyone thought that these critiques were a recipe for legalisation of the drugs trade, Mansfield brought them up short. He was not, he said, a believer in legalisation as Afghanistan does not and will never have a comparative advantage in poppy cultivation in a legal regime compared with countries like Australia which would then enter the frame. “Producing poppy legally will end up increasing rather than reducing dependency on an increasingly subsidised, uncompetitive poppy crop.”
This brought the debate full circle. Where were the solutions?
POLITICIANS MUST CONQUER DENIAL.
What the conference showed was that, while the UK can pontificate to and experiment with the rest of the world, it is still blinkered about the root of the problem in its own backyard.
Caught up in liberal shibboleths about the normalcy of drug use, few politicians condemn domestic use as wrong. It is convenient to identify and attack the drugs problem as deriving from trafficking and production – particularly from elsewhere. What choice is there for them but remain in denial about home-grown dependency and addiction problems, which are psychologically rooted and require more than substitute prescribing to resolve them or the crime which stems from them? Or, when faced with evidence to the contrary, to argue that proven treatment is too expensive?
This conference exposed the ‘displacement’ at the heart of UK drugs policy and expenditure.
KATHY GYNGELL is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies. This article is a personal view.
Some time ago, NICK BARTON wrote an article in Addiction Today titled Mind The Gap which looked at the disconnection, even antagonism, between harm-reduction and abstinence-based treatments aimed at recovery. He gave an update at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference.
“I am dismayed that the gap is as wide as it has ever been, made by so much over-investment in one area,” he said. “It is time for a fresh vision which sees harm reduction not only as limiting damage but also as an opportunity to engage motivation to change and to set out on a path of recovery.
“Harm reduction is about a person achieving less of something important – recovery is about them achieving more, and more of themselves.
“Our job is to help people end their consuming relationship with substances. We should help them deal proactively with whatever sustains it, be that internal states or social circumstances.
“As a means to that, each person should be helped to identify recovery capital at their disposal. What resources do they lack in terms of recovery, and what do they have in the bank or could they acquire with the right help?
“As we await a new UK drugs strategy, I fear policy-makers will respond like the man asked if he had learned from his mistakes who replies ‘Yes, I have learned my mistakes – in fact, I can repeat them exactly’.
“Let’s hold in mind that recovery is possible. Nobody has the right to tell or infer to anyone that it is not.”
NICK BARTON is joint chief executive of Action on Addiction.