UK: National Health Service Expands “Free Heroin” Program Despite Increasing Concern Over Overdose Deaths

Natasha Biase

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) is set to expand its “free heroin” scheme despite officials expressing concerns about the amount of people dying from overdoses.

While officials are aware of at least 26 overdose deaths, the Enhanced Drug Treatment Service (EDTS), which aims to help severe addicts who are immune to methadone, is expanding the program over the coming months.

A spokesperson for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Board (NHSGCCB), which runs EDTS, admitted that there are currently only 21 addicts participating in the program, with nearly 40 people being involved since it launched in 2019.

“The pilot of the EDTS has demonstrated that diamorphine [heroin] assisted treatment can be implemented safely and effectively in a population group which is marginalized or has complex needs,” he continued, adding: “The service did experience some challenges, but the outcomes have largely been positive, and the service has improved retention rates among people in this vulnerable group who are seeking help.”

Currently, within the program, pharmaceutical-grade heroin is given to supervised patients at what is referred to as a “heroin-assisted treatment facility” to prevent addicts from taking deadly heroin from the streets. Although there has been a decrease in overdoses since 2022, there were 1,051 overdose-related deaths in Scotland last year.

Sue Webber, a Conservative member of parliament in Scotland, decried the decision, saying: “Scotland continues to have the worst drug [death] rate in Europe on the [Scottish National Party’s] watch – and it is vital the right measures are taken to stop so many families grieving the loss of loved ones.”

She concluded: “While this scheme might be supporting some people struggling with addiction, it is money that could be better spent helping those aiming to transform their lives.”

Sharing her sentiments, Annemarie Ward of FAVOR UK, a charity that promotes addiction recovery, said her “main concern is its poor management and lack of evidence for cost-effectiveness and overall impact. We must also address the stark resource imbalance in rehab funding.”

Although an official evaluation of the performance of the EDTS will occur “in the near future” to the body in charge of alcohol and drug issues in Scotland, when asked about the program’s recovery rate, NHSGCCB claimed: “Urine test results continue to show that the vast majority of patients had no markers for street heroin present.”

As of March this year, the Daily Mail reports, EDTS has cost taxpayers an estimated £165,000 (approx. $207,000 USD) per patient, with over £80,000 (approx. $100,000) going toward shuttling addicts to facilities via taxi.

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