Jay’s story has a familiar ring. The pre-teen experimentation with cannabis after his father walked out on the family, followed by flirtation with ecstasy and cocaine. He had smoked his first wrap of heroin before he was old enough to buy a pint of beer.
But it was only when he was off the street, safely incarcerated in a young offender institution, that methadone was added to Jay’s palate. As the gaunt teenager with grey skin shuffled from foot to foot in the West London drizzle, uncaringly dressed in a hooded tracksuit, his pin-pricked pupils scanned the streets.
“I was running wild with a raging [heroin] habit when they got me,” he said. “They tried to detox me inside but as soon as I complained they put my dose of methadone up again. I came out needing drugs as much as when I went in.”
His six-month stretch inside passed in a methadone-induced daze with, according to Jay, little attempt by prison staff to offer him a pathway to drug-free recovery. When he was released two years ago, Jay, whose only family contact is an elder brother he occasionally stays with, swiftly returned to the messy chaos of an opiate-obsessed existence. He thinks that he will be back in prison within weeks. “Most junkies I know want to be clean but if you can’t do it when you’re inside, when can you?” he says.
Methadone, a heroin substitute that is more addictive than heroin itself, has assumed a dominant position in the State’s drug-control armoury. It is given to half the country’s estimated 300,000 heroin addicts while parliamentary answers have revealed that 65,000 prisoners were prescribed it in the past year, including nearly 20,000 on a maintenance programme which can last years — an annual rise of 57 per cent. In some patches of “broken Britain” it is responsible for more fatal overdoses than any other substance.
Supporters say it stabilises addicts and protects society by removing the need for drug-financing crime sprees. Opponents argue that the State is happy to “park” people on methadone for years, giving up hope that addicts will ever lead a productive,drug-free life.
One aspect most agree on is that drug addiction is a lucrative business. Professor Neil McKeganey, a leading opponent of mass methadone medicating, said: “There’s considerable financial incentive that drug users remain drug dependent.” Drug companies make millions from producing methadone, GPs in many parts of the country get paid in the region of £220 per methadone patient per year, pharmacists can get £200 administration fees plus about £1.50 per administered dose, while more than 150,000 people are employed in drug-action teams funded largely from the public purse.
Mark Johnson, a former drug user who founded the charity Uservoice, said that although prisons are the ideal location for rehabilitation because they are “the only place that removes some people from dysfunction and gives them a respite”, the authorities are increasingly opting for the methadone route. “All we’re doing is containing the problem, not solving it,” he said.
Several studies have shown that a residential-based abstinence programme lasting at least a month has a roughly one in four success rate, while a recent study on addicts in society showed that after three years on methadone only 3 per cent are drug-free.
Despite this, however, the Government, backed by a cadre of policy experts and health professionals, is increasing its multi-million annual spend on methadone maintenance programmes. At the same time, at least 20 residential rehabilitation centres have closed in the past two years because primary care trusts have stopped referring clients. Last month Middlegate Lodge, the only residential rehab centre specifically for teenagers, closed.
Just 850 prisoners were put on the relatively succesful 12-step abstinence programme last year. No figures are available for how many young offenders are prescribed methadone.
Inspectors’ reports into young offenders’ institutions record that while alcohol and cannabis are the biggest substance problems, the use of methadone is being encouraged and is increasing.
Kathy Gyngell, a drugs policy analyst for the Centre for Policy Studies, said that prescribing methadone to young offenders had become routine. She added: “It might appear the easier option but it leads to longer term problems. Individuals who historically used their short sentences to gain clean time now feel the necessity to carry on using methadone, as it takes no effort other than presenting themselves at the healthcare door to get it.”
David Burrowes, a Tory justice spokesman, said that drug treatment was “characterised by methadone” and that a variety of treatment options needed to be available.
Katherine, a former addict, whose descent into heroin addiction began after she was raped as a teenager, said that after a decade ricocheting between methadone in prison and heroin outside, she had finally kicked her habit after becoming one of the few prisoners to be offered a place on a RAPt (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust) abstinence programme.
“Methadone is not a solution,” said Katherine, who left prison drug-free in 2008. “The message it gives is, ‘You come in with a habit and we’ll keep the habit and let you back out into society with no changes whatsoever.” She said that even in prison, addicts are able to exploit the system by using cotton wool to absorb the sickly-sweet green methadone linctus, before selling it on to other inmates and buying heroin with the proceeds.
Rosie, who started taking heroin at the age of 14, was prescribed methadone after leaving a young offenders’ institution and said that she had never seen a succesful methadone-led withdrawal from drug use. “It’s almost more of a poison than heroin, there doesn’t ever seem to be an end to it,” she said. She became drug-free after attending an abstinence-based treatment centre provided by the Nelson Trust.
To its advocates, though, methadone is a useful tool. At best, it stabilises addicts before they are weaned off; at worst, it can be used to maintain addicts long term, minimising the need for them to commit crime to pay for street heroin. Overall, drug-related crime is estimated to cost the country more than £13 billion a year.
There are also risks associated with forcing prisoners to go cold turkey. Cynics suggest the prison authorities’ increasing enthusiasm for methadone may have something to do with the £750,000 it was forced to pay out in 2006 after almost 200 drug-addicted prisoners sued the Government, claiming that their rights were infringed when they were forced to withdraw suddenly.
Even for those who claim to have benefited from it, methadone is at best a stopgap. James, 30, from Renfrewshire, had been a heroin user for nine years when he was given methadone in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow. “Everything in prison was all about drugs,” he said. “Sometimes you couldn’t get any heroin and you couldn’t eat your dinner, you were in bed with all your clothes on, teeth rattling. They put me on 30ml of methadone, a low dose, and it settled me. I was a lot calmer; it was like a safety net.”
Roger Howard, the chief executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission, an advocate for methadone, admits that it could not alone cure drug addicts. “What everyone wants is to reduce deaths from dangerous street heroin and to reduce criminality,” he said. “Methadone is not the problem. These people come with a bucketful of problems: abuse, unemployment, homelessness, family.”
Professor McKeganey, who works at the Centre for Drug Misuse at the University of Glasgow, warned that Britain was sleepwalking into a situation similar to that in the Netherlands, where the Government provided places at old people’s homes for those with long-term methadone habits: the so-called “geriaddicts”. Mr Howard agreed: “There is a cohort who are probably so damaged and with such profound health problems that they will never get a job and will for ever rely on the State.”
As he prepared to pad the darkened streets of West London in shoes as punctured as his bony, needle-marked forearm in an all-consuming search for his next hit, Jay pondered a parting question: if you could survive in prison on methadone alone, why not, when outside, give your daily, drug-free urine sample, take the supervised dose of methadone and shun street drugs?
“But where would it get me? All right, the craving for smack’s not there but you soon get the craving for the meth. Nobody I know on a heoin ’script is getting any better. They’re just surviving.”
The cost of a quick fix
Methadone prescriptions written in 2007, a rise of 60 per cent since 2003
Amount spent annually by government (central and local) tackling drug use in England in 2009-10
The cost per year to society of problem drug use
The estimated cost of drug-related offending in 2003, made up of a £9.9 billion cost to victims of crime and £4 billion costs incurred by the criminal justice system
Estimated number of problem drug users in England, of whom 166,000 are in some form of treatment programme
Sources: NAO, Drugscope, Home Office
David Sanderson and Alice Fishburn
March 17, 2010