The number of drug addicts who are prescribed methadone has more than doubled over the past two years, the Conservatives disclosed yesterday in an attack on the government's treatment programme for heroin users.
Mike Penning, a Tory health spokesman, said the number of drug users who were prescribed opiates under the programme increased from 70,363 in 2005-06 to 146,999 in 2007-08.
He said analysis of parliamentary answers from health ministers showed this "explosion in methadone prescription" was doing little to help people achieve abstinence.
In 2007-08 only 35,441 people were discharged successfully from structured drug treatment – a pass rate of 17%. The average length of a course of prescribed methadone was 338 days. The number of deaths directly attributable to methadone abuse rose from 98 in 2005 to 167 in 2008.
Penning said the policy of trying to manage drug addiction was not working and should be replaced by an abstinence-based approach.
The Conservatives said they were particularly concerned about methadone prescribed by GPs, who were not required to limit supply to patients who were taking part in a structured treatment programme.
Penning said: "We propose to introduce abstinence-based drug treatment in order to break the cycle of addiction and offending for good. We would introduce an abstinence-based drug rehabilitation order. It would require residential treatment, or, depending on the nature of the offence and circumstances of the offender, daycare."
But a Department of Health spokeswoman responded: "It is complete nonsense to suggest that getting more drug addicts into treatment is a failure to get to grips with a pressing social problem … The number of drug users in treatment has more than doubled over recent years to a record 202,666. So it is hardly surprising that the numbers of heroin and crack users benefiting from substitute prescribing regimes have increased as well."
Paul Hayes, chief executive of the National Treatment Agency (NTA), said: "Methadone is the first-line treatment for opiate dependency because that is what Nice [National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence] guidance and expert clinical guidelines recommend.
"The NTA supports a balanced treatment system in which individuals can access the treatment most likely to work for them. The increase in the numbers of heroin and crack users benefiting from substitute prescribing is a reflection of the massive expansion of drug treatment services in recent years, and evidence that we are tackling the problem of drug addiction."
The Home Office has estimated that there are 332,000 problem drug-users in England, who are dependent on heroin or crack cocaine. About half are in drug treatment programmes.
Social care charity Turning Point said its work with drug users showed there was no "one-size-fits all" solution. "The aim has to be to get people into treatment and to keep them there," a spokesman said. "There should not be a question of choosing between abstention and methadone. The important factor is discovering what stage a person is at in their treatment journey, so that they can be provided with the most effective support."
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