Tiny number leave NHS drug treatment ‘clean’

New figures show that just three per cent of people treated for drug addiction in England are discharged free from drugs, prompting criticism of the Government’s ‘harm reduction’ approach.

The numbers, released by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), have re-ignited controversy surrounding harm reduction techniques, where substitute drugs are prescribed to people addicted to illegal substances.

Campaigners say that although prescribing substitutes is much cheaper in the short term than abstinence-based rehabilitation, it is also far less successful.

The charity Addiction Today says that some heroin addicts who are prescribed methadone remain hooked on the substitute for decades.

Around half of the £500 million allocated by the Government for tackling illegal drug use is spent on prescribing substitute drugs.

But according to the figures, only three per cent of the 200,000 individuals receiving treatment for drug addiction were discharged drug free in 2007/08.

Just two per cent were treated in residential rehabilitation centres.

The head of the NTA, Paul Hayes, defended the substitute approach in an interview in June.

He said: “We need to keep maintenance prescribing as an integral part of the drug treatment system because it stabilises people, reduces crime, reduces deaths.”

But Melanie Reid, a columnist at The Times, has attacked the approach.

“Fact is,” she writes, “harm reduction drug strategies have become a self-serving, self-perpetuating state industry.

“Instead of helping drug addicts to become drug free, as 80 per cent of them would like (figures, incidentally, from a survey by Mr Hayes’s own organisation), official policy has created a pharmaceutical holding pen in which the UK’s addicts can be coralled at a cost of £300million per annum.”

“Once on heroin substitute,” she added, addicts “may be trapped in limbo for years without being offered a chance to become drug free.

“The industry doesn’t care: it sails on like an ocean liner, with a generation of drug users on board.”

The Scottish Government announced earlier this year that it would shift its focus away from methadone treatment and towards “recovery and helping people live drug-free lives”.

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