Taking away benefits from heroin users won’t solve anything

Dr Ben Daniels

105648963 262x300 Taking away benefits from heroin users wont solve anythingIt was reported today that Ian Duncan Smith is threatening to stop heroin addicts from being able to claim incapacity benefits.  About a hundred of my patients are heroin users and they are all signed off work. IDS pointed out that it was unfair that hardworking tax payers were paying for the addictions of others. This may well be true but is an attempt to force heroin users in to gainful employment really a viable option?

We recently advertised for an admin assistant at our surgery. It is a low paid, unskilled, part time position that required no previous experience and no great physical exertion. Such is the nature of the times; we had over 60 applicants, most of whom were greatly over qualified for the post. None of the applicants were intravenous heroin users, but if they were we wouldn’t have short listed them. If we wouldn’t consider employing a heroin user, who does Mr. Smith think will? With the exception of the odd ailing rock star, I am yet to hear of a gainfully employed injecting heroin addict.

Heroin is an awful all-consuming drug that destroys the personality of the person behind the habit. The next fix becomes more important to the user than food, shelter and most sadly the people who care about them most. It is not a lifestyle that can easily coexist with a 9-5 job. IDS is very welcome to switch all of my heroin addicts from incapacity benefit to job seekers allowance, but it would simply be an expensive and time consuming PR exercise that led people from one handout to another.

If he chose to take it one step further and remove all their benefits, the result would be an almighty Hurrah from some, but would simply mean a large number of the most vulnerable members of our society being made homeless and being pushed further in to crime, prostitution and begging as they looked for alternative ways to feed their habits. The extra burden placed on to the criminal justice system would almost certainly end up costing far more than the relatively meager handouts that heroin users currently receive in the form of incapacity benefits.

Our local drug and rehab services are quite good but although most of my patients who use heroin are actively enrolled within substance misuse services, very few will successfully turn their lives around. Treating heroin addicts punitively with prison sentences doesn’t seem to work either, so it would appear to me better to try and work out why people fall in to heroin addiction in the first place. Most of us experiment with drugs to some level or another in our youth, but even during my own sustained and enthusiastic period of adolescent experimentation, I never got anywhere near a place where injecting a syringe full of heroin in to my arm jumped out as being a good idea.

Most, although by no means all of my patients who use heroin seem to take those extra few steps in to harder drugs and full scale addiction after fairly miserable starts in life. Heroin is often an escape from the grim realities of life and amongst my patients, child abuse and growing up in care seem to pop up time and time again as the most damaging experiences addicts are trying to escape from.

As a doctor I try not to get carried away with the emotion and morality of what I see as it interferes with the practical aspect of the job. Many of my patients have self inflicted injuries and illnesses and whether they are due to heroin, alcohol, smoking, or falling off horses, me offering extra indignation benefits no one. In my eyes politicians have no option but to take the same approach. I am dealing with addiction on an individual basis whilst they have to consider it on a more national scale, but ultimately the realities are the same.

Heroin dependence exists and is hugely detrimental to everyone. Vitriolic sound bites about the cost to taxpayers might make favorable headlines in the right wing media, but it doesn’t make the problem go away. There will always be victims who fall prey to heroin, but how about trying to prevent young vulnerable people from plunging in to addiction, rather than simply vilifying them once they have.

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  • Farweasel

    Neat, tidy, too simplistic.

    In a very real sense the behaviour IS the disease.

    Moreover there *are* physological as well as psychological and behavioural changes in many forms of adiction.

    So what IS your point?

    That you don’t like people with adiction problems?
    That you feel and want to be recognised as superior to people with adiction problems?

    I (thankfully) have neither but if I had to chose between Heroin adiction and Diabetes I’d choose Diabetes every time.

    But if you think adicts genuinely have a choice you have less insight than a Government Minister.  (And no, that’s not a complement).

  • RedDevil9

    I’m not sure about the whole ‘addictive gene’ thing. I think that some people are more susceptible to addiction psychologically though. Not a genetic thing, but still there nonetheless. Well done giving up smoking anyway. I totally agree, no-one should smoke in the house when children live there.

  • gingerem

    The majority of cases of type 2 diabetes are caused by obesity – is this not the consequence of a particular behaviour?

  • Nathan McSparin

     have you ever known someone and I mean really known someone with an illness like this. The lack of willpower comes from an unnatural level of stimulus from the particular act. Enjoying something isn’t the same as the chemical imbalance that causes addictions nitwit. Through counseling and lifestyle changes some people overcome it, but some need much more help.
    Next thing you’ll probably tell me that something like depression is just an excuse to get out of work.
    Question: were raised by a psychologist or did you take psychology in school? Because you sound like one of those heartless, sociopathic, psychology purist assholes that think everything can be done just by willing yourself to do it.
    Some people don’t have to the ability to overcome or have been so beaten down-usually by people like you-that the ability breaks. It’s up to those of who aren’t as bad off to help those that are.
    Either grow a heart or jump off a cliff. People like you are the reason this world is as bad as it is. The only perspective you see is your own.

  • Joe Stanley-Smith

    Very well-written piece, thanks for your professional input

  • Noels No Coward

    Anyone convicted of crime should forfeit benefits for a year. Benefits should be for law abiding members of society not criminals.

  • itwasmonkeys

    Given that so many people in jail for committing a crime are mentally ill, I foresee no problems with that plan. Besides that, I don’t think of some crimes as really being crimes. I don’t take any drugs but if the guy across the street smokes some weed to get to sleep at night, who cares? None of our business really.

  • LongTermRecovery

    Please read up on the research before condemning other people. There is a great, brief explanation of the difference between addiction and drug abuse by neuroscientist Prof Carlton Erickson at

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