Drug addicts to receive diamorphine twice a day in UK-first scheme

Mattha Busby
Photograph: Getty Images/WIN-Initiative RM

Drug addicts in the north of England are to receive daily doses of diamorphine from next week as part of plans to reduce deaths, stop crime and undermine drug dealers.

In the first such scheme in the UK, 15 of Middlesbrough’s most at-risk individuals – for whom all other treatments have failed – will be able to visit a clinical facility twice daily, seven days a week, to inject pharmaceutical-grade heroin provided by the authorities under medical supervision.

Once their drug use has stabilised, individuals will receive assistance to support their mental health, help secure housing and find employment.

The clinical lead, Daniel Ahmed, said the 12-month pilot of the heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) programme would provide some of the most in-need people with an opportunity to change their lives.

“They are on a cycle of offending, committing crime to raise funds for street heroin, being arrested and going to prison, being released and offending again,” he said. “The cycle often only ends when they die, often in the street.”

Each individual will be medically accessed before being prescribed appropriate courses of diamorphine. “This removes the constant need to commit crime in order to fund street heroin addiction,” Ahmed added.

Barry Coppinger, the Cleveland police and crime commissioner who is helping to fund the scheme, said it was time to follow evidence-based policies to unlock cycles of heroin addiction and that he was looking to roll out the scheme to other areas in the region, some of the most deprived parts of the county.

“The policies of the past have failed,” he said. “If we are serious about tackling and preventing addiction, we need to listen to the experts, take notice of the evidence and act decisively.

“Police need to continue to relentlessly target the organised gangs and dealers behind the supply of street heroin and, at the same time, we need to provide effective treatment to release users from their snares and take early preventive action to prevent others becoming addicted.”

He said studies from Canada, Switzerland and elsewhere had shown HAT was effective and that the 351 crimes recorded by 20 drug-dependent offenders in Middlesbrough had cost the public purse almost £800,000 over two years.

“It’s not about being tough or soft on crime, it’s about being smart on crime,” he said. “If you are willing to make the investment, look at things slightly differently, you can achieve great results. There is no greater result than saving someone’s life.”

It costs £12,000 to put an individual through the programme, and the coalition of groups behind it – including South Tees Public Health and Tees and Wear prison group – have said this represents a fraction of the cost their drug misuse places on the criminal justice system, health service and other public services.

Until the late 1960s, about 1,000 people dependent on heroin were prescribed diamorphine under the auspices of what was known as the British system until it was largely dismantled as authorities moved away from a public health approach to dealing with addiction.

However, diamorphine can still be offered if methadone, buprenorphine and other treatments have been unsuccessful. Almost 300 people in the UK received a prescription in 2017-18, according to Public Health England figures.

There were 1,366 drug-poisoning deaths relating to heroin or morphine use in 2018, with deaths involving opiates reaching their highest level in step with record drug-related deaths. Middlesbrough has some of the highest rates of adult reoffending, opiate use and drug-related deaths across the UK.

The Home Office has previously confirmed it supports plans to introduce HATs, and there have been plans to introduce a similar facility in Durham for some time.