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Tackling Brighton and Hove's drugs problems
Brighton and Hove has for many years been branded the drug death capital of the UK. Nearly four in ten city adults are believed to have taken illegal drugs with youngsters claiming that the likes of cannabis and cocaine are easier to get hold of than alcohol. However, a new independent commission plans to rid the city of its unenviable reputation. Ben James reports.
Drug addicts should be allowed to inject heroin in NHS facilities under the supervision of nurses, a report has recommended.
The move would see the city’s 2000-plus opiate users able to visit their local treatment centre to take drugs in “safe and clean premises”.
It is just one of 20 recommendations set out by a new panel of experts to tackle Brighton and Hove’s drug problem.
The Independent Drugs Commission released its draft masterplan yesterday following nearly a year of work.
It is now open to public scrutiny before the final report is published in March.
The board plans to roll out the recommendations across the city in April.
The group, which is headed by crime writer Peter James and former government drugs tsar Mike Trace, was set up following a proposal by Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas.
Kate McKenzie, the mother of recovering addict Hannah Mayne, is also on the board.
Miss Mayne has appeared in The Argus many times over the years highlighting her battle with heroin and resulting treatment in South Africa.
Speaking about her involvement in the commission, Ms McKenzie said: “Following my experiences I wanted to try to do something positive. I just want to make sure that no other parent has to go through what I went through.”
The commission identified four key challenges to curbing the city’s drug problem.
Firstly they looked at what more could be done to help reduce the number of drug deaths in the city.
For more than a decade Brighton and Hove has appeared in the top three areas in the country for drug related deaths.
In 2009, 50 users in the city died. Although that figure has reduced slightly in the years since - in line with but still above the national average - the toll is still considered too high.
Among the suggestions put forward is to more closely monitor and examine coroner’s reports to better understand the circumstances which lead to drug deaths.
Safe, clean premises
One of the commission’s more controversial suggestions, is to look into providing “consumption rooms” where addicts could take drugs at clinics.
The report notes the success of such schemes overseas, adding: “The commission believes that, where it is not possible to stop users from taking risks, it is better that they have access to safe, clean premises, rather than to administer drugs on the streets or in residential settings.”
The panel agreed that the move would be controversial as it involves “the toleration by health workers of the use of illegal drugs”.
However, Ms McKenzie, added: “If people are going to take heroin they are going to take heroin. They already go to these centres for clean needles so this isn’t as radical as it may sound.”
Mr Trace added that the proposal would also give the authorities a chance to offer preventative services to addicts.
One of the other recommendations is to increase communication between the authorities to prevent GPs dishing out potentially dangerous prescription drugs which could be used to make a lethal cocktail with other substances.
The suggestion was something Ms McKenzie told The Argus that she identified with.
She said: “As a mother I found it hard to find out anything about my daughter because of data protection.
“I think that needs to be looked at.”
The second challenge the panel investigated was whether police, CPS and the courts are doing their bit to reduce drug related harm.
Despite 760 drug related arrests in the city last year, the commission found that police had “not been able to stop the flow of drugs to potential users”.
However, the panel commended the force’s swift action against drug gangs trying to infiltrate the city’s black market.
Mr Trace said that as a result the city has avoided the same level of drug related gang violence which has blighted the likes of Liverpool and Manchester.
Turning their attention to the courts, the panel noted “inconsistency and a lack of coherence in sentencing outcomes”.
Additionally the members said that there were inconsistencies in dealing with difference players in the drugs scene such as professional dealers, users, dependant users and social suppliers.
As a result the commission suggested trialling special courts for dealing with drug offences.
Acknowledging the savage cuts to both the police and NHS, Mr Trace said: “It is something we have considered and we want to be realistic about this.
“But a lot of our recommendations are about being smarter with what we’ve got rather than spending more money.”
He added that if the proposals are successful, they could lead to savings.
With drug use especially prevalent among teenagers and young adults, the panel’s third challenge was to discover whether enough was being done to protect youngsters from the dangers of drugs.
Mr James told The Argus that the panel was shocked to hear youngsters found it easier to access drugs than alcohol.
He added that they described needing just “one phone call” to access any number of illegal substances.
As well as recommending increased prevention education the board suggested providing youngsters with affordable activities to get involved in.
Mr James added: “They don’t need to be necessarily expensive. We aren’t talking about a lot of money but it gives youngsters something else to do with their time. A great example of how this is successful is the Crew Club in Whitehawk.”
The final and perhaps most complex challenge the panel hopes to tackle is whether the city’s treatment facilities are meeting the needs of addicts.
One of the major problems identified was the accessibility and availability of treatment.
Ms McKenzie said: “I always found the whole process very disjointed and very rigid.
“For example a lot of the services only worked office hours, from nine to five. Anyone who has any experience of an addict knows that is not much help.”
Another major finding was the failure of medical staff to deal with addicts showing symptoms of mental illness.
Ms McKenzie added: “The reason many people take drugs is because they have mental health issues. The drugs help them to feel better.
“However in my experience these people are getting turned away. They are told that the drug problem has to be dealt with first.
Mental health problems
“But they can’t get off the drugs until the underlying mental health problem is dealt with.
“You’ve got to treat the person and treat the illness.”
The draft plan, which is available online, is now open to scrutiny and suggestions from the public.
Mr James, the commission’s chair, said: “We are asking people to get in touch to let us know what they think.
“Drugs are clearly a problem in Brighton and Hove and we – along with help from the public – want to do something about it.”
Ms McKenzie added: “I only think things will change if attitudes change.
“We have tried to take a fresh look at the problem and we hope to create a lively debate.
“We need to stop viewing drug users as criminals and see them as people who need help.
“I don’t want this to be a paper exercise, I want this to make a difference.”
The commission’s draft plan is now available to the public.
Residents’ views are being sought on the 20 recommendations along with suggestions on how the drug crisis can be tackled.
The full report can be found at www.safeinthecity.info/independent-drugs-commission.
You have until the end of February to have your say on proposals.
Following that, the panel will meet again and work on producing the final report for the end of March.
It is hoped that the recommendations will be rolled out across the city from early April with reviews throughout the year.
A mother's hell
Kate McKenzie’s daughter Hannah started taking heroin when she was 18.
Before long she was hooked on heroin and her life began to fall apart.
With her next fix never far from her mind, she turned to crime and even stole from her family home in an attempt to keep the dealers at bay.
She battled with suicidal thoughts, crippling health problems and in the end was sent away to South Africa for rehab.
When the commission was announced last year, her mother jumped at the chance to help out.
Ms McKenzie said: “It is something I feel very strongly about.
“A few years ago I didn’t know the first thing about drugs, but now I know more than I could ever have wanted.
“I think I can provide a unique insight.
“Over the years I suppose I shadowed her, so I know how things work. I was pretty much doing everything except injecting the heroin.”
Hannah went to Bishop Luffa School in Chichester and had a bright future ahead of her.
But despite a comfortable upbringing and good education, her addiction worsened and she racked up enormous debts.
Kate McKenzie with daughter Hannah
Ms McKenzie said: “That’s one thing I wanted to make clear, it isn’t just youngsters on sink estates. Addiction can take hold of any family as I know all too well.”
Following a potentially deadly overdose her family spent £20,000 sending Hannah to the Priory clinic.
Desperate to protect her daughter from the dangers of black market heroin, her mum even took the desperate decision to help her access the drug.
With little improvement, Kate decided to get her daughter out of Brighton and Hove and spent £40,000 flying her to South Africa for rehab.
She added: “She has made improvements but it is an ongoing battle.
“It’s a lifelong illness and everybody is different.
“I just hope that this report can make a difference.
“I don’t want this to be a fancy looking report, I want there to be action. I just hope we can achieve that.”
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