Dr Peter Moore: Why it is more effective to help the addict than send them to prison

Drug addiction is a medical problem not a legal one

Drug addiction is a medical problem not a legal one - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was in the 1980s when the police rang and asked me to visit a bedsit in Torquay. The room was sparsely furnished and, lying face down on the bed was the body of a 19-year-old woman.

The ambulance service had received an anonymous call saying that someone had taken an overdose.

When the ambulance crew arrived she was already dead. Post-mortem confirmed that she had died of a heroin overdose. Presumably, whoever made the phone call had also removed all the drug paraphernalia.

Every case is a tragedy but what made the situation even worse was that I had seen 12 drug overdoses in a year across South Devon. And I was only one of five doctors on call for the police.

Because the situation was so serious the coroner set up a committee to review the illegal drug use across South Devon.

The group consisted of some local counsellors, senior police officers and the consultant from the drug treatment centre. I was there to represent the five police surgeons.

Ideas ranged from increasing the ‘war against drugs’, raiding homes and locking up drug dealers, continuing as we were by supporting addicts with substitute drugs or giving addicts safe heroin under medical supervision.

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What was interesting was that the closer people were to the front line the more ‘liberal’ their views.

The senior police officer joined me with a plea to take the problem out of the criminal justice system and allow addicts the drugs under careful medical supervision.

The people most likely to argue for more ‘law and order’ were the politicians who had probably never met an addict.

Heroin was developed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 1874 by combining two molecules of morphine. It was marketed as a wonder drug; named heroin as it was so effective that it was a hero. It was the ‘non-addictive alternative to morphine’.

Ironically, the same company developed aspirin but did not immediately market it as they believed aspirin was bad for the heart.

Under medical supervision using the correct dose and sterile equipment, heroin is effective and safe.

On the streets the injection is far from sterile and the dose in the illegal wraps vary.

It is easy for an addict to accidently overdose, which is what had happened to our 19 year old.

In the committee I was arguing, alongside the senior police officer, that drug addiction is a medical problem not a legal one.

By making drug use a criminal offence addicts turn to dealers. The only way to pay dealers is through crime.

If addicts had a safe clinic where they could get a fix, they would not need to commit crime and dealers would be out of business.

Over 30 years later this idea has resurfaced. Last year, 4,400 people died in England and Wales from drug poisoning.

The West Midland Police claim that half of all burglaries, theft, shoplifting and robbery are committed by addicts on heroin or cocaine.

The current drug treatment system is not working.

Last year, Middlesbrough opened a clinic where ‘high end’ heroin users can visit twice a day for medical-grade heroin given under supervision.

Once they are not spending their days looking for the next fix, staff can discuss how to turn their lives around to live a more normal life.

Of the first six patients, four did not reoffend. The numbers are small but encouraging.

The Police and Crime Commissioners from North Wales and the West Midlands are also considering the idea. It has been given the acronym HAT, heroin assisted treatment.

The other good news is that the Middlesbrough scheme is partially funded by the proceeds of crime.

The idea of using money from convicted drug dealers to treat addicts was also used in New York. Their impressive new building was nick named ‘The House that Crack built’.

The numerous tragedies I witnessed in the 1980s have not gone away. Tough on crime does not always work if the causes of crime are an addict’s desperate desire for a fix.

It is more effective to help the addict than send them to prison.