AMs call for “public health” approach to drug abuse

(Title Image: Wales Online)

To coincide with the publication of the Welsh Government’s annual report on drug abuse (pdf), AMs had a chance to debate the approach to date including what works and what doesn’t.

Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), told AMs that progress had been made. Access to treatment is getting faster, with 86.7% of people starting treatment within 20 days in 2016-17 compared to 83.3% in 2015-16. There’s also been an improvement in the number of people reducing their abuse over the same period – 77% compared to 69.2%.

The Minimum Alcohol Price Bill is one part of the Welsh Government’s actions amidst a rise in alcohol-related deaths. The distribution of Naloxone – a drug used to treat opioid/heroin overdoses – is believed to have contributed to a fall in drug-related deaths between 2011-2014.

In addition, a specialist programme to mentor people who have substance abuse problems into employment will run until 2020 with 1,500 people already signed up.

Dr Dai Lloyd (Plaid, South Wales West) has encountered drug problems as a GP, saying it was no surprise that some people wanted to “blot out the pain” having live brutalised lives. He called for more tolerance and willingness to help so the reasons behind drug use – physical abuse, mental health problems, self-harm – are properly addressed. He supports calls for safe injecting rooms in a clinical environment to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) pointed out that while drug treatment may be quicker, the numbers completing treatment drug-free have fallen while drug deaths spiked in 2016. The Conservatives want Tier 4 treatment (residential treatment) to be expanded, as patients are being moved into community treatment without evidence of need. David Rowlands AM (UKIP, South Wales East) later added that Merthyr Tydfil hadn’t referred anyone to residential care in the last five years.

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) called for additional capital funding to ensure offices don’t close and services aren’t centralised to specific areas. Parents also have to act as role models and introduce alcohol in particular to children in a restricted and sensible way, if at all before the age of 15. These sentiments were later echoed by Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) who blamed poor supervision for under-age drinking.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) described recent surges in alcohol and drug deaths as a “social catastrophe”, which hit the homeless in particular and is a direct result of austerity and benefit reform. It’s important substance abuse is seen as a health issue and not a criminal justice one, but we need the powers to fully create a system that doesn’t treat people with problems as criminals.

Caroline Jones AM (UKIP, South Wales West) said while working in prisons that people who had shown promise early in life were ruined by drugs, but it’s no longer limited to illicit “street drugs” but also prescription drugs, with some rehabilitation services now treating more abusers of prescription drugs than heroin.

In reply, the Health Secretary said there was a serious debate to be had about safe injecting rooms, with concerns from chief constables that they would be asked not to enforce the law. Also, there’s almost always a campaign against drug-related facilities in the communities they’re located in.

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