When it comes to drugs, the state’s policy has traditionally been hard-line; blanket prohibition and the criminalisation of users. However a recent government-backed study has cast doubt on the wisdom of this approach, by showing that prescribing heroin to addicts both drastically cut the use of street drugs and markedly reduced crime.
Drug-related crime is a major problem in working class communities, with former colliery areas in south Wales and the north of England having some of the highest rates of heroin addiction. Research suggests that between half and two thirds of all crime is drug related. The Randomised Injecting Opioid Treatment Trial (RIOTT) reported over a two-thirds reduction in crimes committed by the participants.
Professor Strang, who led the RIOTT programme, said that the aim of the trial was to determine whether prescribing heroin or similar substitutes could help turn addicts’ lives around and prevent the cycle of crime and imprisonment. “The surprising finding – which is good for the individuals and good for society as well – is that you can,” he said.
Will the evidence influence policy? Or will the upcoming election see another futile contest between politicians to appear the most hard-line on those already at the bottom of capitalist society? While the government has indicated it will “roll out” a supervised prescription program, concerns have already been raised about the £15,000 per person annual cost. However, compared to the £25,000 per person annual cost of imprisonment that seems like a bargain – even in the crude cost-benefit terms of government ministers. That’s before even taking into account the broader social costs of widespread heroin addiction.