Government considers addict benefit changes
Drug addicts who refuse treatment could have their welfare benefits withdrawn in a reform of the government's drugs policy. Social care organisation Turning Point tells Channel 4 News the moves could "further marginalise" vulnerable groups.
The Home Office said it was considering "some form of financial benefit sanction, if they [addicts] do not take action to address their drug or alcohol dependency." The plans were outlined in a consultation paper on the government's drug strategy for England, Wales and Scotland, published today.
The benefits scheme would be a revival of a previous Labour initiative aimed at helping drug users get back into work
The new paper from the coalition government looked at whether the government could make more of the potential of the benefit system to help drug addicts get back into society.
The proposals also suggest that addicts on benefits should not be required to seek work while receiving treatment.
However drug charities have criticised the plans, saying there was no evidence they would work and could breach medical principles.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of charity DrugScope, said: "The benefit system can and indeed does have a very important role in terms of advice and support to encourage people both to access treatment and employment.
"But we seriously question both the fairness and the effectiveness of actually using the stick of compulsion - benefit sanctions - to link a requirement to undergo medical treatment with a condition of receipt of benefit."
We must be careful not to marginalise hard to reach groups
"We are supportive of any proposals which encourage more people to enter treatment," Kelly Hallett, assistant director of substance misuse services at social care organisation Turning Point, told Channel 4 News.
"However, we must be careful that if imposing benefits sanctions, we do not further marginalise hard to reach and vulnerable groups. And the other side of the coin is that cutting benefits for those who refuse to seek help will only work if there are appropriate treatment places available.
"Different approaches work for different people. There will be people who respond well to this, and others where it will drive them further underground for all sorts of reasons - their personal circumstances, their family, their housing, how involved they are with criminal activity.
"There is lots of evidence of 'coercive' treatment of this type working for some people. For others, reward and recognition can work, just something like getting a certificate saying they have passed their drug test, or employment or training certificates.
"There are many ways to bring people in - we have 'smoothie clubs', where if people come in they get a smoothie and a sandwich.
"The new drug strategy appears to support this more holistic approach, the focus on the complex needs and underlying issues in people's lives."
He said there was "absolutely no evidence" that would work for a "vulnerable and often marginalised group" and added that under principles enshrined in the NHS Constitution, "medical intervention should be therapeutic, consensual, confidential".
"I just don't see that's compatible with using the benefits system to require people to undergo a complex form of drug treatment intervention," he said.
The drug consultation paper looked at tackling drug addiction and its wider social impacts. It also included plans to incorporate the Big Society into Britain's drugs management policy, such as a focus on local services.
Drug experts, law enforcement bodies and charities will be asked to comment on the consultation paper from today. The government aims to publish its new strategy by the end of the year.
The consultation paper also included a reference to plans that were outlined yesterday by crime prevention minister James Brokenshire to impose a temporary ban on legal highs while their potential harmful effects are investigated.
A year-long temporary ban could help take new substances off the market, Mr Brokenshire said.
The strategy follows increasing concerns over the safety of legal highs. Legal high Ivory Wave was blamed for the recent death of chef Michael Bishton, 24. His body was found in the sea off the Isle of Wight on Saturday.
Outlining plans to introduce the temporary bans by the end of next year, Mr Brokenshire said: "The drugs market is changing and we need to adapt current laws to allow us to act more quickly.
"The temporary ban allows us to act straight away to stop new substances gaining a foothold in the market, and help us tackle unscrupulous drug dealers trying to get round the law by peddling dangerous chemicals to young people."
But he added that anyone tempted to try a legal high "must understand it is not safe or sensible to take a substance when you do not know what it is or what is in it - especially when some are claimed to be pond cleaner or bath salts".
Under the proposals, police would be able to confiscate suspected substances.
People caught with a legal high could face a fine and a maximum 14-year jail sentence – although possession for personal use would not be deemed a criminal offence to prevent "the unnecessary criminalisation of young people", the Home Office said.
Some former legal high substances, such as mephedrone, are already banned, but this approach would see a blanket ban while new types of legal high are assessed.
Earlier this week, leading GP Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians, told Channel 4 News the government should consider decriminalising drugs to improve health and cut crime.
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