The lead clinician on a controversial, but innovative heroin addiction treatment project has said he is “devastated” after it was forced to close its doors when the money ran out.

Danny Ahmed also told the Local Democracy Reporting Service of his frustration and said the Middlesbrough-based programme had not failed, but instead was failed through commissioning structures which did not support it.

Ten people, who were administered medical grade heroin – diamorphine – under supervision at a facility based at the town’s Foundations GP surgery, the aim being to wean them off the drug and turn them away from crime to fund their habit, have now successfully transferred onto alternative forms of treatment with some under consideration for rehab placements.

But Mr Ahmed, who set up the project, which had its final day on Tuesday, said there was a “real potential risk” they could return to street heroin.

He said: “Personally, I am devastated and the team is devastated.

“We have worked incredibly hard to deliver what is a complex treatment – we have proven that it works, but that has not been enough and that is a big frustration.”

The Northern Echo: Former PCC Barry Coppinger and Danny AhmedFormer PCC Barry Coppinger and Danny Ahmed (Image: Picture: Handin)

In September, Mark Adams, South Tees joint director of public health said Middlesbrough Council had faced a funding shortfall despite a significant contribution from the Home Office’s Project Adder initiative and was not in a position to commit further grant funding.

Police and Crime Commissioner Steve Turner had previously declined to renew his office’s funding of the scheme, the first of its kind.

He said he wanted to get “upstream” of drug dependency before it developed and said such schemes should be financed through public health budgets, rather than coming from a policing and community safety pot, and “even then they must be financially viable and make a significant difference in reducing drug-related deaths”.

Mr Ahmed said the cost of jail for offenders could be twice as much as the £30,000 it annually costs to pay for each participant’s treatment.

News of the scheme’s demise in September was labelled “tragic” by Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald, who said the stopping of funding was “shortsighted, counterproductive and frankly wrong”.

Meanwhile, a cross party group of MPs on the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee called for funding to continue, praising the project, which they said could reduce drug-use and disrupt organised crime.

‘Long term recovery’ The treatment programme was set up in October 2019 with the backing of former Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger – its stated purpose reducing the number of deaths caused through heroin addiction, promoting independence, long term recovery and desistance from offending behaviour and to free up substantial resources used by the criminal justice system and the likes of the NHS in dealing with such individuals.

It treated drug addiction as an illness and focussed on high risk individuals committing crimes to pay for entrenched addictions and for whom standard opiate substitute treatments – typically oral-based methadone – had failed with patients attending twice-daily, seven days a week.

In the first two years of operation its costs amounted to nearly three quarters-of-a-million pounds, with supporters arguing that this was money well spent based on the greater expense incurred by addicts’ prolific offending.

An assessment of the first year of the project was completed by academic researchers Dr Helen Moore, Hannah Poulter and Professor Tammi Walker, from Teesside University.

Fourteen participants were assessed, who ranged from 35 to 51 years old and were mostly men.

On average the group upon entering the programme reported taking street heroin every day, but subsequently most were abstinent for large periods of time and 80% of tests for traces of street heroin were negative.

The researchers said participants had accumulated 52 years of prison time between them and had cost the state £4.3m, which included policing and criminal justice system costs and costs to victims through having items stolen or damaged.

Offending reduced by 60 per cent for those taking part and after just one month the majority were no longer shoplifting.

Mr Ahmed said: “As a clinician your role is to bring evidence-based, cost effective treatment to the people that need it, and that’s what we have done in this case.

“So then to spend the last three years scrabbling around to get what isn’t a huge amount of money has been incredibly frustrating and it has been very sad to break the news to the participants, who have really turned their lives around and shaped a different direction for themselves through their commitment to a difficult programme.

“To let them know that we haven’t been able to successfully continue is heart-breaking.

“We could not have done any more as a service, we evaluated the programme independently and that was positive and have further evidence to be published in the next 12 months which again will be positive in terms of the benefits, and have demonstrated the cost-effectiveness.

“These programmes may not have a broad reach in terms of the numbers of people that we have been able to connect with – that has been limited by the funding – but the ripple effect has been huge.”

Mr Ahmed said it did not make economic sense to continue spending huge amounts of money through the criminal justice system on hardcore addicts, when there was clear evidence it “doesn’t affect change”.

He said there had been a stigmatisation of drug users over the past two decades and those with complex, problematic drug use frequently had a long history of significant, multiple traumas.

He said: “Nobody wakes up and wants to be addicted to drugs with the significant problems that causes, but it usually provides some relief for the pain they are experiencing.

“This is about vulnerable people who are being offered an alternative treatment.

“I see the comments some people write [on articles] and it fuels me to continue the public discussion around the reason why people find themselves with problem drug use, it’s more complex than having a bit of fun and it got out of hand.

“Some don’t have the resilience and the life skills to be able to cope with difficult, traumatic beginnings in life.”

Asked if he thought such a programme would be commissioned in the area again, he said: “Hand on heart, I am hopeful, but doubtful.

“We have learnt a hell of a lot in terms of the hurdles you have to overcome and the reality is we have shown it works, and that has not been enough.

“I do know that other areas are looking at this treatment programme and the message I have to them is that this has not been a failure, it has been a failure of commissioning to support world-class innovative treatment.

“We now have this experience behind us, we have a lot of knowledge on how best to treat entrenched heroin use and we would be ready to launch again if funding could be found.”

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