Skip to main content

Drug Testing in Prisons (Buprenorphine)

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) takes the misuse of drugs in prisons very seriously. Since 1996-97, the overall random MDT positive rate has decreased from 24.4 per cent. to 8.8 per cent. in 2006-07. This represents a decrease of 64 per cent. for that period. Ministers are now urgently considering what further measures we need to take over controlling the supply of drugs into prisons. NOMS has been proactive in monitoring changing patterns of misuse and in ensuring that the best available supply reduction measures are in place. By this statement I am announcing that mandatory drug testing (MDT) for buprenorphine will be introduced in all prisons from 1 April.

Buprenorphine (Subutex) is being prescribed increasingly in the community in the treatment of opioid dependence and is gaining equal clinical status to methadone in some areas. This has been accompanied by increased illegal use. Buprenorphine testing has been in place since 1999, restricted to those prisons with an identified problem. Growing operational concern at the potential for wider buprenorphine misuse in prisons led NOMS to commission a survey in 2007 to assess the scale of the problem. The results show that misuse of this drug has grown to be a significant problem and that its use is now more widespread geographically.

Buprenorphine misuse presents a new challenge for prisons. In response, testing will now be introduced in all prisons to act as a deterrent. Prisoners will also be warned of the dangers involved in misusing this drug and reminded of the drug treatment options available in prisons.

The increased misuse of buprenorphine does not detract from the considerable achievement of prisons over the last 10 years in reducing the supply of drugs.

The introduction of buprenorphine testing in all prisons will however, inevitably lead to an increase in reported levels of drug misuse. Key performance targets have already been set for 2008-09, but these do not take into account the impact of buprenorphine. Therefore, this year two sets of performance data will be recorded: the headline measure excluding buprenorphine, and a separate measure including buprenorphine. This will demonstrate clearly the impact of buprenorphine testing and enable the comparison of prison performance to continue on a consistent basis. New targets that take into account buprenorphine misuse will then be set for 2009-10, although we may continue to run two data sets in parallel to provide longer-term comparisons of trends.

Copies of the report “A Survey of Buprenorphine Misuse in Prisons: July 2007” have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. Copies are also available on the internet at