There’s more smack than dope in British jails, according to newly-published data (pdf) from the Ministry of Justice. In random testing, 4.2% of prisoners tested positive for opiates, 4% for cannabis. In a couple of jails, heroin use was up at 16%. Some people say that prisoners are switching to heroin because it doesn’t hang around in the blood for so long, so you’re less likely to get caught for smack use in random testing.
(An aside: say what you like about random testing, at least it gives you fairly accurate figures. Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the UN drug police UNODC, thinks he can tell who’s on drugs just by looking. Speaking at a conference yesterday, he described a meeting organised by the Drug Policy Alliance as follows:
“1200 participants, 1000 lunatics, 200 good people to talk to. The other ones obviously on drugs.”
Thanks to Transform for that report.) Now back to the UK.
The drug the government is getting uptight about is buprenorphine, an opiate substitute which is widely used in drug treatment outside jail (and sometimes inside it, too). Unauthorised use of bup (aka Subutex) in jails stands at 1.9% nationally, but more than one inmate in 10 is taking it in several jails, and in some its one in five. Justice Minister David Hanson has decided to deal with this problem by forcing all jails to introduce random testing for buprenorphine (currently only around two thirds of jails do). His theory is that random testing will act as a deterrent, pointing out that use of other drugs has fallen from 24% to 9% since random testing was introduced in 1997.
Perhaps better treatment would help more. To give the government its due, the number of prisoners on substitution therapy has more than tripled in the last 10 years, but there’s still a long way to go. The prison policy update dedicates most of its drugs section to supply reduction, making no commitments for increased treatment. There’s not a whisper about allowing clean needles for injectors in prisons, of course, even though the UK taxpayer continues to fund life-saving needle exchange programmes in jails in other countries. Go figure.
While I’m on drugs, a rare bit of praise for UNAIDS. Having allowed harm reduction to teeter on the brink of invisibility, they seem to be finding their voice again. Could it be that they smell change in Washington?