15 September 2009

Prescribing Heroin Win Win Win

There is one thing that seems to be agreed upon when it comes to heroin addiction: the current approach isn't working. However opinion is of course divided on the answer as to whether a 'tougher' or a 'softer' approach is required. Cue the usual rational carrot vs. reactionary stick argument.

Today's news brings a boost to the carrot camp: a trial run at prescribing heroin to addicts produced a big reduction in crime levels. More than half of all crime is drug-related, so any measure that can stop drug addicts needing to commit crimes will hugely benefit society.

However there are still some crumbs for the stick crowd. Heroin prescription currently costs £15,000 per addict per year. Their argument follows: as taxpayers we should not see our money spent on heroin prescriptions when we have decided not to spend money on life-extending cancer drugs.

As already pointed out by Anton Vowl, MTPT and no doubt others, that don't make sense. The cost of using the criminal justice system to pursue heroin addicts costs significantly more, even if it was effective (and we have 40 years of failure to show it isn't). A bit of Googlage found this report (pdf) from the year 2003/4 which states:
the economic and social costs of Class A drug use are estimated to be around £15.4 billion in 2003/04. This equates to £44,231 per year per problematic drug user. Problematic Class A drug use accounts for most of the total costs (99%, or £15.3 billion).
£15.4 billion... and guess who's paying! This number is also five years old now; it is likely to have risen in line with the rise of Class A drug use. It also only covers England and Wales.

Now this is for all Class A drug use, but lets adopt a similar policy was adopted for Britain's 280,000 addicts of all Class A drugs, and assume providing their prescription costed about the same as the current cost of prescribed heroin. That would cost £4.2 billion. It won't eradicate the economic and social costs, but they would be massively cut.

Transform Drugs Policy Foundation recently performed a much more rigorous cost-benefit analysis (pdf). They found that with the same number of drug users, the net saving of providing legal supplies of drugs would be £10.8 billion. Prescribing heroin will save the taxpayer money.

Finally I would like to ask: what if there wasn't a saving? What if the cost-benefit was neutral, or even slightly negative? My view is this is still worth doing, because it would make people happier. The chaotic life of a drug addict and their children, the misery of being a victim of crime, the impact of prostitution on a community, the spread of infectuous diseases, and the lure of gang culture... these are all symptoms of the criminal drug trade. Getting the drug dealers' customers an alternative way to get their fix will have a real impact on all these sources of misery, and make our society a better place to live.


Paul said...

Duncan - I wholeheartedly agree with you. I read the BBC report on this and found it extremely encouraging, especially as it improved the lives of some of the worst addicts while reducing crime, taking trade from the dealers and getting back some of the addicts on the job ladder.

Ewan the liberal beardy said...

You're right Duncan, and if we expand prescription, economies of scale will only bring the price for diamorphine down. Either that, or we get it really cheap paying a fair price to Afghan farmers and whipping it out from under the nose of the Taleban. Come along to the fringe if you're coming to Bournemouth:

Duncan Stott said...

Thanks for the invite, Ewan. I won't be at conference but best of luck with your fringe meeting.

Ewan the liberal beardy said...

Cheers Duncan. I hope to be posting good news after the conference is over, and to be setting up websites etc. Do you fancy being a member of Lib Dems for Drug Policy Reform?