A world-renowned expert is backing calls for a pilot scheme in North Wales to give prescribed heroin for free to drug addicts.
The idea is the brainchild of the region’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Arfon Jones, who says the introduction of Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) would save lives, reduce crime, cuts costs and interrupt the illicit drug market.
Mr Jones, a former police inspector and long-time campaigner for drug reform, is organising a virtual conference on November 2 to seek support for the pioneering programme, with Deeside in Flintshire being a potential location.
Among the guest speakers will be Professor Sir John Strang, the director of the National Addiction Centre who heads the Addictions Department at King’s College London.
Professor Strang says Heroin Assisted Treatment has proved a success in other countries, notably Switzerland, and in other areas of the UK.
He said: “I was involved in setting up a research study in three parts of England looking at whether this very intensive unorthodox treatment was or was not able to help people break away from their regular use of street heroin.
“The rationale behind it was to see if we could help people break away from drug use and in a way the secondary engagement that occurs with the illicit market and all the criminal activity associated with it.
“We saw this as very much as an intensely specialist intervention for people with heroin addiction where other treatments were not able to work. In a way it’s like the open heart surgery equivalent.
“You wouldn’t contemplate this for most of the people you see but you wanted to be assured it existed if other interventions were not able to address the problem.
“We had very positive results with HAT and ran clinics for a number of years until eventually funding cuts meant we had to close the clinics down.
“In the UK at the moment there are substantial initiatives in Glasgow and Middlesbrough that are exploring HAT and its benefits.”
According to Mr Jones, a new approach is desperately needed because the so-called war on drugs has been a “miserable failure”.
He said: “We have to find a better way of dealing with and supporting addicts if we are to reduce deaths from opiate over dose.
“The Lost Voices, Lost Lives conference will focus on the benefits of HAT to vulnerable individuals who are hooked on heroin use and where other treatments have failed.
“There is a measurable benefit to communities as a whole and a proven reduction in crime as a result.
“HAT is a public health approach that treats addicts with a long-term opioid addiction to other treatments.
“As a patient they attend a specialised clinic two or three times a day to receive their prescription of medicinal diamorphine under the supervision of medically trained staff.
“The addicts who would be eligible for HAT live a chaotic lifestyle with little access to support and health services. By attending a clinic on a daily basis patients will have regular access to health professionals, housing and other support services.
“It stops the cycle of spending days looking for their next ‘fix’ and means they can lead more normal lives. It also means patients can start to deal with their addiction and slowly return to leading a stable life.”
He added: “It also means we see a reduction in crime as addicts no longer need to find the money to buy heroin on a daily basis. Therefore, it reduces crime and removes the fear of crime from communities.
“Not every addict is suitable to receive HAT and no drugs leave the clinic, the prescription is taken in front of medical staff.
“I want to work with local councillors to see if we can get a pilot up and running. It’s time for the health board and area planning boards to look at alternative treatments. Heroin addiction is in many ways the elephant in the room.
“However, we can’t ignore it and if we are to save lives and get some addicts back on track, it has to be a way forward. The Health and Area Planning boards need to step up to the plate now.
“The Welsh Government, in principle, support a HAT pilot scheme which is why Tracey Breheny, the Welsh Government’s deputy director of Mental Health, Substance Misuse and Vulnerable Groups will also be speaking as part of the virtual conference.
“I want to work with local councillors who know their wards intimately. We need to start this campaign from the bottom up.
“I’m considering the Deeside area of Flintshire which has been blighted by opiate addiction for a long time. Too often discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia are regularly found littering the streets and we need that to stop.
“We need to break the cycle of addicts buying heroin from criminal gangs. The truth is that street heroin contains all sorts of impurities and simply isn’t safe.
“We have to give addicts a chance to lead better lives and eventually kick their drug habits. And by doing so we achieve our aim of reducing crime and the fear of crime.”
Cllr Sean Bibby, who represents the Shotton West Ward on Flintshire County Council, is looking forward to the Lost Lives, Lost Voices conference to hear for himself how HAT works.
He said: “The drug issues around Deeside are considerable and that’s not to say there aren’t problems in other areas of North Wales. But certainly, from a Flintshire context Deeside seems to have a major drug problem.
“I think HAT has its merits but I want to hear what is said at this conference and see for myself how it works on the ground.
“Residents are concerned about having a potential scheme in Deeside and I can understand their fears. But in principle I think that a pilot scheme run in Deeside may be a good idea.
“I would like to see how the Middlesbrough HAT clinic operates and the effect it has had on the area in which it operates.”