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I met Tom (name changed) in the reception of a community drug service. He had had a tough few days – he’d forgotten to pick up his script on Friday for the weekend and so had used over the weekend to cope with the rattling. The day before we met, he had also lost a friend to overdose. Through his heavy intoxication, his distress and anger were palpable. Tom blamed the treatment service for his relapse because they weren’t open over the weekend. And he blamed the police for his friends’ death because they had arrested his friends’ usual dealer and he had scored from a new guy whose gear was much stronger than he was used to.

I met Tom (name changed) in the reception of a community drug service. He had had a tough few days – he’d forgotten to pick up his script on Friday for the weekend and so had used over the weekend to cope with the rattling. The day before we met, he had also lost a friend to overdose. Through his heavy intoxication, his distress and anger were palpable. Tom blamed the treatment service for his relapse because they weren’t open over the weekend. And he blamed the police for his friends’ death because they had arrested his friends’ usual dealer and he had scored from a new guy whose gear was much stronger than he was used to.

These kinds of stories are not new. This is what happens when we fail to take a whole systems approach to difficult challenges – especially social ones that often have multiple levels of complexity. Acting in one part of a system will always have an effect on the systems’ other component parts – positive and negative.

On top of that we have to bear in mind that systems exist at different levels and on different scales. If you’ve ever watched The Wire you will have seen what happens when one dealer is taken from the streets. Another one is ready to replace him. And if resources are focussed on tackling the supply of a particular drug, it’s likely that this will simply lead problem drug users to find something else. This is certainly what we were being told by young people during our research in West Sussex. With the stories of new drugs like Oxi being developed in other parts of the world this is extremely worrying.

So why’s this system stuff relevant? Well, it seems to be all the rage in the drug strategy. But – and that’s a big one – while the strategy brings a welcome focus to the recovery agenda under its third priority area, it seems to do this in isolation of its two other priorities: restricting supply and reducing demand. It talks of a ‘whole systems approach’ to building recovery communities but it fails to include its first two priorities in doing this. But if we take Tom’s story as an example, we can see that they are not distinct systems; activity in meeting the first two priorities (i.e. taking the dealer off the street) has an impact on the third priority (i.e. Tom’s friend found his drug from unknown supplier and wasn’t prepared for its strength). In this way they are all part of the same system.

Granted, this is just a snippet of the whole story that just touches on a few parts of the system (and the story from one persons viewpoint) but what it does is begin to highlight the massive task in hand – the multiple layers of the system and all the people and organisations that have a role in it.

So if we accept that we are talking about a single whole system and recognise that activity in one part will have an impact on other parts that needs to be anticipated and planned for, where do you start?

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