It is no secret that the Government is split over how to best approach the alcohol and drug abuse problem in Britain. Within the debate is a group of leaders calling for the decriminalisation of most drugs in an effort to treat addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal matter. Yet a letter written by the executive director of the Changing Lives charity suggests that, practically speaking, there really is no debate here.
Ollie Batchelor maintains that the common practice all across Britain is to treat all but the most serious offenders as patients with health problems rather than criminals. He says courts routinely deal with offenders by issuing minimal fines and referring them to treatment. Only dealers and persistent offenders face harsh punishment for their actions.
If Mr Batchelor were correct, it would seem as though the decriminalisation question has already been settled. And if so, Batchelor contends that the real issue is funding. He said that cash-strapped local authorities are looking to reduce spending in any way they can, oftentimes targeting drug and alcohol treatment programmes for cuts. On that count, he is right. The amount of money the Government spends on addiction recovery has been falling for years.
There was a time when the NHS referred alcohol and drug addicts to residential treatment and picked up the bill themselves. Those days are over. These days, residential referrals are reserved for only the most extreme cases. In order for an addict to qualify, he or she must jump through a series of hoops proving they have exhausted all other options. Not only has this new strategy eliminated opportunities for accessing private treatment, it has led to the closure of private clinics across Britain.
Batchelor says that charities such as his are at risk of suffering the same fate if things do not change. Changing Lives, as with so many others, depends on government funding to keep daily operations going. When local authorities cut that funding, the charities are forced to rely more heavily on donations from private organisations. But that money is not an inexhaustible well either.
The Wrong Debate
In light of what Mr Batchelor wrote in his letter to The Guardian, we would like to suggest the current debate over decriminalisation is the wrong debate to be having. Instead, it would appear as though we need to be talking about ways to increase funding for treatment programmes in order to adequately help all those passing through our courts. It should be obvious that using the courts to refer drug and alcohol addicts for treatment does not do any good if the available treatment options are inadequate.
The truth of the matter is that we cannot treat drug addiction as a health matter unless we have the funding to do so. Finding ways to come up with the funding is far more important than continuing to debate whether drugs should be decriminalised. The longer we ignore the funding issue in favour of decriminalisation, the longer the problem will go unaddressed.
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