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Mother of art student who died after taking ketamine warns: ‘War on drugs’ has been lost

Safe consumption facilities idea is raised as Camden drug deaths rise

31 December, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby

Vicky Unwin with her daughter Louise

THE mother of a talented artist who died after taking ketamine has warned that the “war on drugs” has failed and access to illicit substances should now be legally regulated.

Vicky Unwin, whose daughter Louise Cattell died when she was just 21, told the New Journal “safer drug consumption facilities” could help. She was speaking as new figures showed Camden now has the highest rate of drug deaths in the capital.

“Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and I’d say there’s no question that it’s failed, and it’s getting worse,” said Ms Unwin, who lives in Belsize Park. “So many people are falling through the gaps and there’s a lot of desperation out there at the moment.”

She added: “If drugs were regulated like alcohol or tobacco the government could tax it, bring in revenue to the country – perhaps to be invested in the health service – and it would also mean addiction would be treated as a health rather than crime issue.”

Louise, who had applied to study fine art at the Chelsea College of Arts, died in 2011 after taking the drug and falling asleep in the bath.

Ms Unwin said: “If a drug was regulated, you could go to a shop and buy a clean, vetted supply and they could advise you on dosage and effects. I do believe that if drugs were regulated when Louise had taken ketamine her death may have been prevented as she would have known both how much to take and the exact effect it would have on her.”

Louise Cattell

She added: “She and her friends took a couple of ‘bumps’ of ketamine at home, and although she took what she thought was the right amount, it didn’t matter.”

Louise had recently returned from Australia and was preparing to further her studies.

“She wasn’t stupid. We used to have quite open conversations and she would say she had seen the effect of addiction on friends like Pete Doherty over the years,” said Ms Unwin, who is now a trustee at Transform, a foundation that campaigns internationally to change drug policy, and for drugs in the UK to be decriminalised and regulated.

“It’s been almost 10 years [since Louise’s death], but it doesn’t really get any easier. It would be good if Camden had safer drug consumption facilities, but it would need to be introduced as part of a wider drug policy strategy.”

Drug consumption facil­ities (DCFs), or safe injection rooms, are places where illicit drugs can be taken under the supervision of trained staff.

The aim is to reduce overdoses, transmitted diseases and give users a chance to connect with services. Drug awareness charities have warned that central government funding has been cut and say a public health emergency should be declared.

While Camden has seen drug misuse deaths increase, the trend has also been seen across the UK. Graham Parsons, the chief pharmacist at Turning Point, a social enterprise which used to run Camden’s alcohol and drugs services, said: “Drug-related deaths are preventable deaths. Investment in high quality, free to access, evidence-based treatment services is critical, not only to protect communities from drug-related crime and anti-social behaviour, but to save lives.”

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show there were eight deaths per 100,000 people in the borough between 2017 and 2019. Over the same two-year period 69 people died from drug poisoning, with 55 of those related to drug misuse.

Ben Campbell, from Transform’s drug policy foundation, said: “It is more important than ever that the spotlight remains on drug deaths because it is believed the pandemic will have made matters worse not better. With borders closed during lockdowns, wholesalers have taken more to cutting their supply with other substances like fentanyl, which is deadly.”

The Town Hall said it was aware of the rise. Community safety chief, Councillor Nadia Shah, said: “We know that Camden has a higher number of opiate users and that many are older residents who are more susceptible to ill-health and overdose. We also know that drugs such as heroin are increasing in strength and that nationally more than half of those who died of drug-related issues had not accessed support for at least five years.

“This must change, and in Camden we are making treatment services more accessible to anyone in need of support while reaching out to those who are most at risk – this includes having specialist drug and alcohol support workers in our street outreach teams and adapting the support offered to the users of different drugs. We are addressing a rise in deaths amongst women by having women-only support groups and providing greater access to female key workers.”

If you or someone you know needs support, contact either Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust, Complex Drug Service on 020 3317 6000, CGL, Community Drug Service offers support to non-complex drug users on 020 7485 2722 or Integrated Camden Alcohol Service (ICAS), Alcohol Service on 020 3227 4950.


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