Drug Use & Austerity: How Could UK Gov't Cuts Affect Substance Misuse?

Billions of pounds are being cut from UK services as a result of the austerity measures, and while drug services are not always directly affected, they are suffering the knock-on effects of this destructive policy.

In the two years following the 2008 economic recession, some 1,000 people may have committed suicide in the UK due to the impact of the downturn, according to a paper in the British Medical Journal. There is a fear that as the government's austerity measures -- ones which will have seen £23 billion in spending cuts by next May -- really start to bite, Britain could witness a similar uptick as the poor and vulnerable are most affected. 

The knock-on effects generic services cuts have had on vulnerable populations -- people with substance misuse problems, for instance -- are often overlooked.

Although services affected are not directly focused on drugs or substance misuse, they often play a role in preventing further drug use through social integration and employment opportunities, and help to handle welfare measures.

Welsh charity Recovery Cymru works with substance misuse clients who have successfully gone through rehabilitation. It was founded to fill a gap in provision after people’s treatment journeys.

Centre Coordinator Gareth Joseph says that before Recovery Cymru, recoveries were often hindered afterwards.

“It’s like saying: you did brilliantly, you completed a methadone reduction programme, that’s it. Go and live a happy productive life. Surprise surprise! People were relapsing and going back.”

Although Recovery has not been impacted directly by austerity measures, they are bearing the brunt of other services being cut.

“We get inappropriate referrals; people who aren’t ready for Recovery Cymru are sent to us because their peer mentoring project has disappeared, or their organisations have shut down.”

This isn’t likely to end, Joseph adds. “Substance misuse always goes up in times of social deprivation.”

The Need For Reform

Some social workers support legalisation and treating drugs as a health issue. Welsh organisation Kaleidoscope provides rehabilitation services and supports reform and a health-based drug policy. Regional Manager James Varty says the existing drug policy doesn’t work.

“Twelve years in the treatment sector taught me drugs aren’t the problem. Making them illegal makes them unsafe and dangerous.”

He says the problems are poverty and inequality -- heightened in times of austerity and social deprivation.

“People develop substance problems because they look for a way to cope with social and emotional problems; they feel excluded, or have no hope of a worthwhile existence.”

Modernity, he says, means people are increasingly pursuing personal wealth and possessions and become detached from their communities, from networks of support, and are at greater risk of exclusion. Based in Wales, where drug services are centrally funded, Kaleidoscope hasn’t yet felt the impact of austerity measures.

However, Varty says effects from the cuts on vulnerable people are considerable. “Our service users are typically in lower socio-economic groups: poorly educated, poorly housed, they have low aspiration, family breakdown, they’re socially excluded. These are all risk factors, and although stereotypes, are common problems experienced by our clients. Cuts have affected those areas.”

Varty cites the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, counseling provisions, and mental health services.

“Clients can’t ask about benefits, or get housing forms done; they don’t get jobs or training; or access to mental health services. All these affect their recovery.”

“They have low social capital, so less resource to cope with in these areas than the average [person]. If these services aren’t available in their communities, how can they recover?”

Police Cuts

Law enforcement hasn’t been spared in the multi-million pound reshuffle, and the Avon & Somerset Police is about to lose its dedicated drug units. Drug Strategy Manager Paul Bunt says the force has already made £20m in savings since 2010 and will make another £20m by 2017.

“From April, the teams concentrating only on drugs supply, trafficking offences and the organised crime behind it will be gone, as a result of the cuts.”

These offences will still be dealt with through other arrests made for anti-social behaviour and burglary, amongst others. But, with the police force stretched, Bunt is worried they will lack the resources to deal adequately with crime and drug misuse.

“There’s a danger we could take our eyes off the ball, and if we do, the use of drugs will increase,” he says. “With drug use, profits will increase and criminals will go into other areas of crime; you’ll get more people addicted to drugs and so you’ll get more crime.”

Although research has shown no link between reduced law enforcement resources and increasing crime rates, Bunt says enforcement is necessary to deal with problematic drug use.

“We concentrate on drug dealers, and always have. But the overall aim of the police when they arrest someone for drugs possession is if they have a problem around it, they get the help they need.”

“We tackle burglary, anti-social behaviour, etc. but they’re the result of a bigger problem: drug addiction,” he says. “You can’t deal with the short term measures of those without dealing with the underlying cause.”

To try and stop the problem at the root, police target cultivation sites and seeks to arrest the bigger dealers. Last year, Avon & Somerset Police found 800 cannabis farms; a considerable result, but only a small fraction of the total number where marijuana is illegally grown. This may seem like a discouraging number, but Bunt has a different take.

“You can say we’re losing the battle, but there is no battle. It’s every day life. People take substances, and a war on drugs seems to suggest you can win it. But you can’t win it, can you?”


Charlotte Sexauer writes about human rights, social justice and drug policy and has been published by The Santiago Times, LatinCorrespondent, and Red Pepper magazine. You can find more of her work here and follow her on Twitter