THIS week we are running a series of features about Kaleidoscope – a charity which supports people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues in Gwent – as it celebrates it 50th anniversary. Today, ESTEL FARELL-ROIG talks to Martin Blakebrough, the charity’s CEO.
“Kaleidoscope was the mission of The John Bunyan Baptist Church, a small Baptist church in Kingston, London. My father was asked to join it in 1967 – it was a struggling church which wanted to focus on serving the needs of its community. My parents went around Kingston to see where the church could have a role to play.
My parents took the issue to the church and they decided to open up the church hall on a Friday night from 10pm to 6am to run it as a nightclub. The name Kaleidoscope came from the idea of this club that would attract all the different young people from Kingston – such as teddy boys, hippies and rockers.
The first issue we saw was family planning. A lot of young women didn’t feel comfortable going to see their doctor because of confidentiality issues, so Kaleidoscope started by providing contraception. We wanted to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
The message of the church is don’t have sex until you are married, but the reality was that wasn’t happening. We needed to be practical and solve that problem.
Probably what started Kaleidoscope as a drug service was one girl. This one night, they were tidying up and, under this ball of coats, was this girl. They thought she had died, but they managed to revive her. She had suffered an overdose.
She was a lovely girl who had some issues which led to her heroin use. Sadly, six weeks later she died from a fit. I think that made Kaleidoscope focus on drugs and alcohol, as it really rammed the issue home.
With drugs, it hit the middle-class communities first, in the late-1960s. Drug use, right up until the mid-1980s, was primarily the occupation of the middle-upper classes.
In the mid-1980s, two big things happened. Up until that point, we had 30 or 40 people coming every day. And, then, in the mid-1980s, heroin hit the working class communities. By the late1980s, the numbers had increased to 300 to 400 a day, just in Kingston.
We brought the first computer dispensing system into the UK so we could treat hundreds of people safely. Our numbers went up but people still didn’t have to queue to go into treatment.
There was also HIV, so it was the perfect storm.
As people often inject heroin, we were the first ones to introduce a needle syringe exchange in the UK. At the beginning, it was very controversial but then it was quickly rolled across the UK as HIV was such a threat. The two most vulnerable groups to HIV were gay men and drug users. Together with some excellent gay organisations, this stopped us from having a catastrophic HIV epidemic.
In the UK, we are now talking about drug consumption rooms. We are giving needle syringes out and we know they are going to take drugs. However, many times they can’t take them in the place they live, so then they take their drugs in the street and leave the paraphernalia in the street.
Drug consumption rooms are a good idea for two reasons. Communities are frightened of drug use because of the paraphernalia – it creates a risk for them and their children.Public health is of paramount importance.
Secondly, with drugs, people don’t know what they are taking. Heroin is now being added with Fentanyl, which is causing a massive problem in America. They can overdose very quickly, and therefore die. If they came into a safe place to take those drugs, they wouldn’t die because we could intervene immediately.
We can train our service users to run those places extremely cheaply. My view is they are taking drugs and we need to mitigate those risks. It is the same with needle syringe exchange – I am giving someone who is a drug user a clean needle syringe. Am I not complicit? Is it not better that they take drugs in a safe place?
When we give methadone to people, in one way we are encouraging drug use you could argue. On the other hand, if they are not craving the drugs, they can focus on sorting their housing or other problems they may have. This means their chances of long-term recovery are really good.
A big problem in the UK is that we have seen a vast increase in drug deaths. We are putting in place some measures, but the problem is we have banned various drugs and then we have allowed the criminal world to get access to them. If you look at the rise of spice, it was created to get a cannabis-like substance into prisons. It is much more powerful than cannabis and, therefore, more dangerous for the person taking it.
I would argue that certain providers should be allowed to sell cannabis for recreational purposes. In Holland, only certain shops can do it and the age is 21 and over. By banning it totally, you haven’t achieved anything. All you have achieved is people taking worst and more dangerous drugs.
I think the current UK drug laws are not fit for purpose. We have consistently campaigned to say so.
You need to control drugs, to keep them out of vulnerable people’s hand, and you need a system of regulation to do that. In the same way, with alcohol, we need to protect people from the strength of alcohol, which keeps going up and the government doesn’t do anything about it.
To me, there is a double standard. It is about having a proper debate about it to keep people safe.
Another change is that, if you look at people from the 1960s and 1970s, they were pretty loyal to their drug – they were into a type of drug. Since the 1990s, polydrug use is very common. People are now happy to experiment with different drugs.
In Gwent, thousands of people access our services. In Newport, around 300 people come in every day just for methadone. When we came into Wales in 2003, the need was phenomenal as their heroin use had not been treated for a number of years. Now you don’t have to wait long to get into treatment.
Kaleidoscope’s main aim is to work with our partners to make sure people have access to the best possible treatment and that they don’t have to wait. We need to help people realise they can make a full recovery, get back into society.”