This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Half of prison drug users want treatment for their addiction



A survey of drug users serving sentences has shown that nearly 50% wanted help with their addiction while in prison.

The authors found that the large majority of prisoners had used an illicit drug during their lifetime, and 62% had used drugs in the four weeks before custody. Nearly half of the recent drug users identified a need for drug treatment in prison.

A total of 1,457 prisoners from 49 prisons were recruited to the study over a 12-month period. All the prisoners were aged 18 or over, and had been sentenced to serve terms ranging from one month to four years. Prisoners were interviewed face to face early in their sentence by trained interviewers; questions were asked to elicit pre-custody use of five target drugs (heroin, cocaine powder, crack cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis), and to identify factors associated with the perception of need for drug treatment.

Cannabis was the most prevalent drug used, and more than half the sample (54%) reported using cannabis during the year before custody. About a third had used heroin and crack cocaine during this period and a quarter (25%) had used cocaine powder.

Amphetamines were the least frequently reported drug used (14% in the year before custody). Sixty-two per cent of the sample had used at least one target drug during the four weeks before custody and 37% had used two or more. Half (51%) of heroin users and a fifth (21%) of crack users had injected in their lifetime.

Nearly half of recent drug users (45%) reported wanting help or support with a drug problem during their sentence. Most of these had used crack or heroin in the period immediately before custody. Other factors associated with identification of a need for treatment included previous experience of drug treatment, unemployment and homelessness. Those with higher than median psychological health scores were also more likely to identify a need for drug treatment.

It has been estimated that problematic drug users comprise over half the annual throughput of prisoners in England and Wales and that about 40, 000 illicit drug users are in custody at any given time. Many of these would benefit from, and express a desire to have, treatment for their drug problem while in prison, and primary care-led drug services within the secure environment must rise to this challenge.

Stewart D. Drug use and perceived treatment need among newly sentenced prisoners in England and Wales. Addiction 2008;104;243-247


Dr Jez Thompson
Former GP, Clinical Director, Leeds Community Drug Services

Rate this article 

Click to rate

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

0 out of 5 stars

Have your say