Action on Addiction

This month's small organisation making a big difference

In the misguided belief that addiction is a problem that can be solved from on high, governments have, over the past 25 years, come up with a plethora of different and sometimes contradictory policies and initiatives. They want to lock them all up, to be really compassionate, to provide harm minimisation, to insist on abstinence, to dole out substitutes. They provide residential rehabilitation, drop-in centres, needle exchanges, counselling. Funding comes in tidal waves of new enthusiasms, then is strategically redeployed for something newer and shinier. Advisers become “tsars” then advisers again. New buzzwords are invented; nowadays it is all about “throughput”.

Meanwhile, with an unwavering belief in the idea of total abstinence, and a treatment programme based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, one small charity in southwest London has been slowly but steadily growing, and helping thousands of drug addicts and alcoholics to turn their lives around. The Chemical Dependency Centre (CDC) was founded in 1985 by Tristan Millington-Drake. “I just knew a lot of people weren’t getting help,” he says. “I didn’t have to do a needs assessment to find that out.” He had seen many friends addicted to heroin in the early Eighties, some of whom died, and watched his own father’s decline through alcoholism.

He packed in a lucrative career with Inchcape and set off to America to train as an addictions counsellor. Enthused by what he learnt and inspired by friends in recovery, he found that “the type of treatment I was interested in [the so-called Minnesota Model] was ridiculed in London; it was considered psychobabble”. But he had seen that it was extremely effective. Unable to get public funding for his project, he turned to the great and the good whose own family members had suffered addiction problems.

It might have had posh patrons, but the idea was to make treatment available “to anyone who desired it”. Growth has been slow but steady. After initially providing assessment, counselling and referral, it opened two residential halfway houses, one for men and one for women, and in 1992 it launched Sharp, a 12-week day-care programme that has been successful enough to spawn in 2005 an offshoot in Liverpool. Last year the CDC merged with the residential treatment centre Clouds House and the fundraising and research body Action on Addiction.

The merger has given Millington-Drake, who is 52, a new and freer role within the organisation. “I was stifled by directives, health and safety initiatives, employment law. I spent all my time complying. Now I’m back to doing what I love.” When I put it to him that he is something of a saint, he looks appalled. He prefers to see his drive as “pathological. You could say I’m addicted to the addicted.” If so, it is an addiction that doesn’t need any treatment.

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