National Treatment Agency announces fall in the use of heroin and crack

In March 2013 the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (part of the NHS) announced that the number of heroin and crack users is falling in the United Kingdom. They report that the figure has fallen from a peak of 332,090 in 2005-06 to 298,752 in 2010-11. This is the first time the number has fallen below 300,000 since estimates began. Many people from different perspectives on drug policy will be glad to hear these figures. If these figures are right, that is.

The first thing to note is that these are just estimates. Because heroin and crack are illegal, people are rarely open about using them. The world of illegal drug use is by its nature shadowy, so it is impossible to get an accurate picture of it. Rather than an actual fall in use, these figures could point to people being more secretive.

It is somewhat inevitable that many people will claim this as evidence that our current drug laws are working. This is wrong on two counts: firstly, we had the same policies during the early noughties, when heroin and crack use were rising. If these policies are responsible for the fall in use, why didn’t they work a few years ago?

And secondly, the truth is that other drugs are becoming more popular. For example, the recreational use of ketamine in the UK has been rising for ten years. Although heroin is much more addictive, ketamine and heroin fill the same niche experience-wise. It does seem that there is a social shift away from heroin and a shift towards ketamine, and there could be a link between the two.

Another trend is the increasing prevalence of mephedrone. According to Mixmag’s drug survey in 2012, it is the fifth most popular illegal drug in the UK, with almost 20% of respondents saying they had tried it in the previous year. Considering it has only been used recreationally since 2003, and was almost unknown in the UK until 2009, it’s fair to say that there has been an explosion in mephedrone use in recent years. And according to the charity Addaction, many heroin users are switching to injecting mephedrone. James Pierce, from Addaction’s harm reduction team, says "The increase [in mephedrone use] is generally down to availability and the perceived low strength of other street drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.”

The misuse of another harmful drug is also on the rise: alcohol. In 2009 over 11,500 people died from liver disease, the highest level recorded, and liver disease deaths in the under-65s have risen by a fifth in the past decade. In the most socially deprived parts of the UK 44% of deaths were from liver disease. Alcohol misuse is a serious problem which has been growing since the 1990s, yet the National Treatment Agency is focusing on their purported success with heroin and crack.

But it’s clear that, even if the NHS’s figures do reflect reality, it will be a long time before they can claim victory in their battle to reduce drug use and promote health in the world of drugs.