Thursday, 18 February 2010

An emergency motion on anthrax-contaminated heroin and draft supporting speech

Conference notes with concern:

That 21 injecting heroin users have contracted anthrax infections from contaminated heroin in Britain since December last year, with 10 of these infections proving fatal.

That the Health Protection Agency advice issued in response to this developing crisis is unlikely to reach injecting heroin users and unlikely to significantly change their behaviour, and that treatment service availability is often insufficient if users do seek help.

Conference further notes:

A growing number of European states are providing treatment-resistant heroin addicts with pharmaceutical heroin for supervised consumption and have observed considerable benefits both to the patient and to the wider community as a result of this practice.

That experience from these countries and from trials in the UK show heroin to be considerably more effective than methadone in improving patient and societal outcomes.

Conference believes:

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

Provision of alternative pharmaceutical sources of heroin to injecting heroin users in the geographical areas affected would not only protect them from the risk of anthrax infection, but protect the communities in which they live from the criminality they are often compelled to engage in to service their addiction.

Conference therefore calls for:

The United Kingdom authorities to expand provision of clinics where addicts can use pharmaceutical heroin under medical supervision, with urgent priority given to regions affected by anthrax-contaminated heroin.

Potential speech:

The killer stalking heroin addicts in Britain today is the same killer that provoked me to found Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform last year. There are eerie parallels between the health authority's current pleas to heroin addicts to stop taking heroin and the police pleas in 2006 asking girls working on the streets of Ipswich to “look out for each other”. Both are utterly inadequate in the face of an unfolding tragedy.

The final victim of Steven Wright gave an interview with ITV news 5 days before she disappeared. When Paula Clenell was asked “Despite the dangers, why have you chosen to come out tonight?” she replied “Because I need the money. I need the money.” When someone is a heroin addict, and knows they run a high risk of being murdered if they continue to try to fund their habit, but they work the streets anyway... surely we can learn from this that heroin addiction isn't something you can just stop.

So what is the killer stalking heroin addicts today? Is it incompetence in the relevant government authority? Or is it public indifference failing to demand that action is taken? How much do we really care when a prostitute goes missing or a heroin addict dies? I know I cared a great deal more after watching a documentary that profiled the young women who died in Ipswich. They were just ordinary girls living ordinary lives who made one mistake in taking heroin and couldn't escape its clutches. Heroin addicts aren't feral animals, they are people's sons and daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and friends. Their mistake in taking heroin does not exclude them from their right to health laid down in the constitution of the World Health Organisation and restated in the body of this emergency motion.

In order to illustrate what prescribed heroin might bring to our communities I shall now read an excerpt from a journalistic piece written in 1995 by Mike Gray about the closure of a clinic in Widnes. Heroin prescription used to be widespread in the UK, but had been scaled back under diplomatic pressure from the US.

“In March of last year I visited the Chapel Street Clinic and met with several of the patients. I sat in on a group session where eight heroin users discussed their lives and problems with a counselor before picking up their prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin. Unlike the junkies we are used to seeing, this group was virtually indistinguishable from any other bunch of young adults on the streets of Liverpool. They were well dressed, talkative, energetic -- they had jobs -- and they used heroin daily.

One was a young woman named Juliette who had been an addict for 13 years. She came from a middle-class background, married a rich kid who got her into heroin, then left her with two kids and no money. She tried desperately to kick but couldn't make it. Somehow for ten years she managed to stay afloat through petty theft and prostitution, with the authorities breathing down her neck. Finally, terrified that they were about to take her kids away, she happened to find the right doctor and he sent her to John Marks. Marks gave her a check-up, satisfied himself that she was indeed a heroin addict, and wrote her a prescription.

"For the first time in ten years," she said, "I had spare time. I didn't have to worry that my dealer wouldn't show -- I didn't have to worry about the price or where to steal the money. So for the first time in ten years, I had a minute to look in the mirror. I looked and I said, `Oh, my God.' Then I looked at the kids, and I said, `What have I done?' All these middle-class values came flooding back in on me.

" Today Juliette has a job, a house, and a mortgage. The kids are in school and doing well. Everybody's in excellent health. And once a week she comes to Chapel Street for her prescription. I asked John Marks what will happen to Juliette on April 1 (when the clinic closes). He said, "Well, she'll go down the tubes."

This isn't going to be an easy process. Each addict will suddenly have free time to reflect on the shameful things they have done over the course of their addiction. But tens of thousands of families can be reunited with loved ones they may have thought lost forever.

I suspect there are very few of these people in the audience today (this is a Liberal Democrat conference after all), but if you are ruled by your wallet and not your compassion, then the cost of providing safe heroin to addicts is tiny relative to the estimated £60,000 yearly cost to society that the average problem drug user constitutes at present. They don't want to die a slow, painful death from an anthrax infection. I'm fairly sure they don't want to be stealing, dealing and prostituting themselves either. Provision of safe heroin under medical supervision means they really don't have to.

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