What can we expect in 2008? 3rd expert view
Columnist: Martin Barnes
OPPORTUNITY AND THREAT.
In 2007, the prime minister promised a “radical review” of drugs policy. The next drug strategy might contain few surprises but, 10 years on – not least in the more febrile political environment – simply more of the same, or the appearance of such, is not an option.
No ‘silver bullet’ will be unveiled. The main blanks – for instance, drug education, treatment and law enforcement – will remain. But the pressure is on to articulate a compelling ‘big picture’ theme. Therein lies both opportunity and threat.
One opportunity is to link the drugs strategy explicitly to the government’s commitments to tackle poverty and social exclusion – going upstream on prevention, putting in place the levers necessary to deliver housing, employment and other core services to problem drug users and, directly or indirectly, challenging stigma. The prime minister’s mission, stated at the door of 10 Downing Street last June, “to fulfil the potential and realise the talents of all our people” should be the touchstone for the next strategy.
A threat is that drugs policy becomes ever more ‘populist’. A good thing would be a drive to win hearts and minds about the importance of spending on drug treatment, rather than doing good – effectively by stealth – within the protections of the ‘ringfenced’ pooled treatment budget.
POLICY SHAPED BY PUBLIC CONCERNS.
Given the media battering which drug treatment received in the latter part of 2007, it needs more understanding and support. But the review of cannabis reclassification might possibly signal an explicit readiness to shape policy by perceived public and media concerns.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is expected to inform government of its recommendation on cannabis classification in April, which might be followed in the summer by a recommendation on ecstasy.
The government might see consistency in declining both recommendations, should they be “no change” and “change” respectively. Important and symbolic as these issues are, we need to be careful not to be overly distracted.
BUDGET CHECKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE.
Recent budget cuts for young people’s substance- misuse services and in planned spend on improving drug treatment in prisons need not be negative omens in light of the new Children’s Plan and a review of healthcare for those in the criminal-justice system.
But downward pressures on funding and/or impatience to demonstrate ‘results’ will continue.
MONITOR LOCAL GAMBITS.
The move to more local decision-making, with Local Area Agreements and so on, has to date not generated much interest, excitement or debate.
It might be the dog that will never bark in terms of impact on drug and alcohol funding and services. But when it comes to the difficulties of prediction, more localism is a “known known”. An uncertain and dry issue perhaps, but we ignore it at our peril.
Martin Barnes is chief exective of DrugScope, the UK’s largest representative of drug-treatment agencies.