THE BLOG

Addicts Should Be Treated and Supported Into Recovery, Not Criminalised

03/02/2015 10:06 GMT | Updated 04/04/2015 10:59 BST

In 2013, I called for a more honest debate about drug prohibition in an article that made headlines about how "police chief wants drugs legalised". My position is more complicated than that - and relates to how I think we can hit drug dealers where it hurts by helping - not criminalising - addicts.

I shape my arguments on drug reform under the following three headings: Money, Health, and Humanity.

Money

In 2008 when I arrived in Durham as the assistant chief constable there were 43 organised crime groups. Since then the constabulary has destroyed or dismantled 29 of those 43 and yet we still have 36 mapped organised crime groups. All have their primary or significant income stream from illicit drug supply.

I recently interviewed two recovering addicts who had been arrested after a undercover policing operation which had lasted six months, cost over £0.5million and we arrested over 30 people involved in the supply of Class A drugs. When I asked how long we had strangled the supply of heroin, one estimated two hours and the other four hours. So undercover policing operations and significant arrests may ensure that criminals are brought to book and prison, but it clearly does not restrict the supply of drugs. The principal reason is money. With a steady supply of addicted people, dealers move into the market place. So we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. The police need help.

Curtis Warren, a notorious Merseyside drug dealer, currently in prison on Jersey for conspiracy to import drugs has an outstanding Confiscation Order of approximately £200million. A few years ago he was included on the Sunday Times Rich List and yet has never worked an honest day in his life. All his wealth has been accumulated through the illicit drugs trade, selling to addicted people.

What's the UK's moral compass when Warren is lauded in the Times? He is not a latter day Robin Hood. His trade kills people.

Health

In 34 years I have seen many people being "parked" on methadone programmes. None of them, in my opinion, have been healthy. There are 1,700 registered heroin addicts in Durham and Darlington and a significant proportion of them who are on methadone programmes engage in what the medical profession euphemistically call "topping up". This means they are still taking street heroin as well as methadone - surely a dangerous cocktail. If addicted people presenting for treatment are likely to "top up" then why not provide them with heroin rather than methadone?

The claims that providing heroin is more expensive than methadone is bogus and it relies on the argument that heroin dispensed in the UK is freeze dried and therefore expensive. There are much cheaper forms of heroin that could be used. There may be objections within NHS England and the Home Office to these ideas.

When drug addicts become infected with hepatitis or HIV then they will be treated with anti-retroviral drugs, estimated at £80,000 per annum - so any argument that we don't want to give people heroin on the NHS are so short-sighted - if we don't then we pick up an exponentially bigger bill.

Studies published in the Lancet suggest that treatment on heroin is more effective than treatment on methadone. Observations that the heroin programmes are more expensive than the methadone programmes are also based on the insistence by Home Office and NHS England that heroin treatment programmes are overseen by a consultant psychiatrist and thus adding £250,000 fixed costs to the programme - hence making it more expensive.

Consumption rooms have proven to improve the health of addicts. Having seen the Copenhagen example, I would not support any consumption room where addicts still source their drugs from criminals. In effect we are providing a ready market for organised crime to run their drugs business. Consumption rooms are effective if there is a significant street consumption problem (a problem I have not personally witnessed in the UK, and certainly not a problem in my force area), but in my view the drugs must not be sourced from criminals and addicts using the facility must be encouraged to engage in recovery.

Humanity

I had the privilege of meeting Annika, a heroin addict, in Copenhagen. She is in her early twenties and was introduced to heroin by her parents before she was a teenager. She receives £600 (equivalent) in cash from the state every month and it all goes on heroin. She prostitutes herself to make ends meet and to buy more heroin. She is a regular in the Copenhagen drugs consumption room. Why not provide her with heroin? It would be pure, she would be healthier, she would not have to prostitute herself or be in the thrall of criminals and her drug dealer would have considerably less money.

The stigma of addiction is a pernicious and inhumane phenomenon. The continuing description of drug addicts as criminals rather than people who are unhealthy or sick prevents them getting well and consigns their family to years of misery and often destitution. Addicts should be treated and supported into recovery. Their entrapment in criminal justice is a waste of police time, a waste of the state's money and dissuades addicts from revealing themselves for treatment for fear of the criminal consequences.

The police should continue to tackle drug dealers and other criminals. Drug addicts should be decriminalised when they offer themselves up for treatment and recovery.

If we are to destroy organised crime then we need to strangle their income stream, in my experience their most significant income stream is through illicit drugs supply.

I am not advocating drugs being made legal, I am advocating a debate that moves away from the binary and unhelpful concept that addicts are bad people who should be treated as criminals. Instead we should be focusing on the best way to help these people recover from their addiction, so that we can improve their life chances, help them make a positive contribution to society, and cut off the income streams of the truly bad people - the criminal drug dealers making money out of others' misery. Prohibition of alcohol in the United States allowed the mafia to generate billions of dollars of wealth and power; I fear we are creating the same scenario in the UK. In many of the communities of County Durham and Darlington where once there was heavy industry and full employment the role models now for young people are drug dealers in fancy cars.