Comment: Don't abandon young drug users

Ruth Goldsmith is communications manager for Drugscope, the UK's leading independent centre of expertise on drugs and the national membership organisation for the drug sector.
Ruth Goldsmith is communications manager for Drugscope, the UK's leading independent centre of expertise on drugs and the national membership organisation for the drug sector.

The government may talk a good game on combating drug use, but funding cuts will leave young users without support.

By Ruth Goldsmith

In a week when many will perhaps be more mindful of the issues around young people and the use of drugs and alcohol, DrugScope is facing a conundrum.

On the one hand, it seems the government is determined to ensure that young people get the support they need in relation to substance misuse. In the 2010 drug strategy, the government stated its intention "to provide good quality education and advice" in order to help young people to "actively resist substance misuse". 

Last month in the House, the prime minister reiterated his belief that drug policy has been a failure over recent years due to "insufficient attention to the two key areas of education–warning people of the dangers of drugs–and treatment." Last week, the Home Office announced a new £4 million funding stream for organisations which are focused on "tackling and preventing substance misuse" among vulnerable young people.

Everything should be looking rosy, then.

Yet all that sounds pretty hollow to the young people's substance misuse workers or drug education professionals who face, or are under threat of, redundancy. As the national membership organisation for the drug sector, DrugScope monitors the impact of government policy on the frontline delivery of drug services. In the latest edition of our magazine Druglink, we revealed evidence that funding cuts are severely affecting drug treatment and education and prevention provision for young people.

In many areas around the country, teenagers and young adults experiencing problems with drugs and alcohol will increasingly find it difficult to get support, as services close or reduce staff numbers. A number of treatment services have already closed in the London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Newham and Merton. Addaction, a DrugScope member and a major UK treatment provider, has confirmed that some local authorities have imposed funding cuts on their young people's services of up to 50%. Another treatment service provider, Lifeline, told us that "the financial cuts Lifeline have experienced in some of our [young people's treatment] services will reduce the number we can help in the future, and could undo the work of recent years."

It seems that we are witnessing a mismatch between words and actions. The Department for Education published research earlier this year which concluded that young people's drug treatment is a cost effective intervention. The report estimated that for every £1 spent on young people's treatment, between £5 and £8 is saved by the NHS and other agencies. And the cuts clearly run counter to the conclusions of Graham Allen's government-commissioned report into early intervention, warmly greeted by Oliver Letwin, minister of state for policy, who said it "vividly illustrates the need to put more of our effort into solving problems early and cheaply, instead of spending vast sums trying (often vainly) to cure them later".

Despite the good intentions expressed in the drug strategy, it seems that young people's substance misuse support is paying the price for local authority spending cuts. Is this what localism looks like?

Cutting services may lead to a spiral of decline in service provision from which it will be hard to recover. Compass, a leading provider of drug and alcohol treatment including many services for young people, has reported the impact on partnership work with referral agencies. The Youth Support Service, Children's Social Care and Connexions are also being hit hard by cuts and, in at least some areas of London, Compass staff are facing greater pressure to search young people out as well as 'treating them'. The numbers in specialist treatment may fall as a result of reduced referrals, and the problem of young people's substance use may be masked, especially if generic professionals such as social workers or GPs are not 'equipped' to identify substance misuse-related issues. The expertise, years of partnership working and development among professionals, such as those at Compass and many DrugScope member organisations, could be lost forever.

Of course, the most important risks are those faced by young people themselves. Most don't use drugs. Of those who do, most do not develop a drug dependency. But last year, over 23,500 young people access specialist drug and alcohol treatment services in England alone. The majority have a range of problems – around mental health, involvement with the criminal justice system, relationships at home or at school, poor training or educational opportunities, or unemployment. The local drug and alcohol treatment service may be the only option left for some young people to turn to when they face problems in their lives, of which drug and alcohol use may be a symptom or a cause. Professionals don't want to be closing the door on any young person who has been brave enough to knock.

Ruth Goldsmith is communications manager for DrugScope, the UK's leading independent centre of expertise on drugs and the national membership organisation for the drug sector. For more information on specialist drug and alcohol treatment for young people see DrugScope's 2010 report.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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