Drug addiction is a recognised illness, but those who are found to be in possession of illegal drugs tend to be punished with prison sentences or fines. However, many people believe this is a practice that should be stopped.
A number of leading doctors think that those affected should not be punished but should instead be treated, with some going so far as to say that heroin addicts should actually be prescribed the drug on the NHS.
Some doctors are of the opinion that addicts should be given the drug in special supervised injection sites around those cities and towns where addiction is problematic. The motion was passed by the British Medical Association (BMA), with members believing that in doing so, there would be a reduction in crime. Supervised injection sites would help to prevent users from overdosing on the drug and would also reduce the spread of HIV through shared needles.
The BMA now plans to lobby the government to set up supervised injection rooms and provide heroin-assisted treatment, with doctors on hand to help and prescribe the drug.
Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of critics of the proposals, with some accusing doctors of enabling addicts. Nevertheless, the BMA’s chairperson of the public health committee, Dr Iain Kennedy, said, “The idea is that drug users can be given the appropriate opiate in a clean and safe manner. The doctors would prescribe the drug, and it would be dispensed for them to use.”
He said that doctors would be able to prescribe heroin to addicts in the same way that they currently prescribe methadone. The only difference is that heroin is less addictive than methadone. He added, “It is medicinal heroin, so it is clean, and users do not face the risk of taking a contaminated drug like they would if they bought it on the street. The rooms would also provide clean injecting equipment.”
Safety for Addicts
The BMA was also keen to point out that the proposed consumption rooms would not be available for just anyone. Dr Kennedy said that they would be used for those who usually inject in public places because of their chaotic lives. He added that the rooms would be used for those who had already signed up for drug treatment programmes.
He said, “It makes it easier for users to get off the drugs and reduces harm to the individual and society. It treats the drug addiction as a health problem, rather than a criminal problem.”
Supervised injection sites have already been introduced in Vancouver, Canada, and they have been a success. The BMA believes these can work in the UK, too. However, not everyone agrees. Mary Brett, who is a drugs campaigner and chairs the Cannabis Skunk Sense charity, said, “They are enabling people to take heroin.”
She believes doctors should be doing more to get people off heroin rather than encouraging them to take more. She said, “Would you do the same for an alcoholic? It defies belief.”
She believes that the right way to address the situation is through abstinence or methadone. Some heroin users are already prescribed methadone on the NHS, with the idea being that their dose will be gradually reduced until they are completely weaned off the drug. Nonetheless, many experts think that methadone is more addictive than heroin, and some people remain on methadone for years, essentially swapping one addiction for another.
Many individuals on the methadone programme will miss their appointment, and when they then begin to notice withdrawal symptoms, they will buy heroin on the streets. This can then mean they are removed from the methadone programme and are back to taking heroin once again and in danger of overdose.