Sajid Javid has said recreational drug users are fuelling an international criminal enterprise, as the government announced a £780m strategy to rebuild the drug treatment system.
The health secretary accused casual users of cocaine of being “the final link in a chain that has suffering, violence and exploitation at every stage”.
The government announced on Monday a funding boost for drug treatment services. Its 10-year drugs strategy was published after a weekend of briefings focusing on targeting users and suppliers, including gangs behind the so-called county lines phenomenon, in which young, vulnerable people are often turned into cross-country mules.
In an article for the Guardian, Javid wrote: “People having a line of cocaine might not think they’re causing anyone harm, or that they’re playing a part in a criminal enterprise, but they’re actually the final link in a chain that has suffering, violence and exploitation at every stage.
“Behind every illicit drug is a human cost. The ‘county lines’ operations that increasingly involve young people, the human trafficking, and the use of ‘cuckooing’, where drug dealers target the most vulnerable and use their homes for criminal activity.”
Experts in drug rehabilitation have questioned the government’s decision to focus on so-called dinner party users of drugs and ignore the liberalisation of drug laws.
Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the drug policy foundation Transform, said: “Middle class cocaine users, the government seems so obsessed with, in reality only represent a tiny fraction of total cocaine use, and they are not supplied by county lines – which is almost exclusively heroin and crack.
“The focus on middle-class users feels like an exercise in distraction and blame shifting from wider failures of government policy,” he said.
Helen Clark, the chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and a former prime ninister of New Zealand, has questioned why the government’s strategy has ignored the legalisation and control of drugs.
“For the most part, [the government’s strategy] doubles down on the rhetoric and policies of the failed war on drugs,” she said.
The largest drug and alcohol treatment providers in the country said the government’s £780m pledge is a “smoke and mirrors tactic” without a proper breakdown of where the cash will be allocated.
Nuno Albuquerque, head of treatment for the UK Addiction Treatment Group, said: “We’re still none the wiser as to exactly how this money will be spent.
“Recent figures show that last year, just over 2,000 addicts were funded into residential rehabs for intervention-style treatment compared to over 5,000 who were funded into day treatment programmes in the community. Guess which one costs more money?
“Today’s announcement is a smoke and mirrors tactic until the full breakdown of the investment is revealed.”
Over the next three years, all local authorities will receive new money for treatment and recovery with the 50 local authorities in greatest need receiving this first, health officials said.
Officials said that £530m has been allocated to increasing and improving treatment services, but could not provide a full breakdown explaining where the £780m would be spent.
The Home Office said there were 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England who were responsible for nearly half of acquisitive crime, including burglary and robbery, while drugs drove nearly half of all homicides. The total cost to society is estimated at nearly £20bn a year.
The government promised to increase the number of treatment services; improve offender drug treatment across the Prisons and Probation Service in England and Wales to get more offenders engaged in treatment; and increase housing support and access to treatment for those at risk of sleeping rough.
Ministers have also promised to roll out individual employment support across all local authorities in England by 2025.
Dame Carol Black, whose independent review into the issue of drugs helped shape the new drugs strategy, will monitor any progress, the government said.
She welcomed the cash injection. “The investment to improve housing support and employment opportunities is just as critical because people need hope, purpose and practical steps to help them achieve a better future.
“This strategy comes with high expectations and I look forward to advising the central unit and relevant government departments to ensure there is a step change in treatment, recovery and prevention,” she said.