My heart sank when I read the headline on the front page of The Independent this morning. The latest initiative to reduce heroin addiction is to offer a financial reward to those addicts that give it up. How much precisely? £10! That’s right. In fact it’s not even cash that’s being offered; it’s a £10 shopping voucher (for food presumably rather than X Box games).
And support for this new policy appears to be widespread and optimistic. Well I hate to be the spoilsport but my prediction is that this policy will get absolutely nowhere and be an unmitigated disaster. The only upside being that it won’t be an expensive one because no-one will actually have to pay out any money.
So precisely then here’s the idea: you pay heroin addicts a £10 shopping voucher on a weekly basis if they provide a clean urine sample i.e. they have not taken any heroin recently. So let’s be clear about this. What they are saying is that people chronically dependent on heroin both physiologically and psychologically, many with low self-esteem, chaotic personal lives and a bleak future ahead of them will be so tempted by the £10 inticement that they will instantly put down their infected needles and instantly become fully functioning members of society once again. Land Cuckoo and Cloud.
Because if money was really a factor here, you’d have thought the hundreds of pounds a week that they might save by not buying heroin and the money they would make by being able to hold down a job might have incentivised them previously. If these people are of such clarity of mind to summon up all of their will power for £10 worth of fish fingers and garlic bread every week, you’d think they might just have been able to muster up the drive previously to quit so as to avoid becoming infected with AIDS or Hepatiitis and escape death from an overdose or another stint in prison, but guess what? Heroin kind of stops you thinking and acting rationally like that.
Anyone who has studied motivation (Maslow, Hertzberg, Pink et al) will be aware of the limiting value of money as a motivator. (If you haven’t check out this entertaining and informative video for a study on the poor correlation between financial rewards and results https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmiDN87VlSg )
Seriously I’m no expert but many of these people will clearly have low self-esteem issues and deep rooted problems that are likely to require ongoing professional support. They may need to escape from their social circles and environment to even stand a chance of giving up. They may need constant supervision. They may need educating and therapy to enable them to take responsibility for their lives. In fact they may have tried many of these things already along with methadone and still not have given up. £10 just simply isn’t going to make one iota of difference to these people’s mind sets or habits
So where on earth has this idea come from? Well the policy has come off the back of a previous experiment to offer addicts money to take up a Hepatitis B vaccine that apparently proved a runaway success. This I can believe. Because it’s a wildly different proposition. Offering someone money to give up a small amount of their time to visit the doctor is one thing but offering them such a sum of money to change years of ingrained habits, their lifestyle, their friends and to get them to question their very nature, is quite another. It seems obvious that these two policies have little in common and really if all we had to do was give people an ASDA voucher to get them to rebuild their lives I think we might have tried it long ago.
Of course I hope I am proved wrong and that within the next couple of years heroin dependency vanishes from the UK but I suspect not. As well intentioned as it might be this is doomed to be yet another failed attempt and a mightily naïve one at that.
PS Actually now that I think about it X Box vouchers might just work.