UK

End war on drugs, says Durham police chief Mike Barton

  • 29 September 2013
  • From the section UK
  • comments
Syringe and heroin powder
Mr Barton compared current drugs policy to the alcohol prohibition era in America

Class A drugs should be decriminalised and drug addicts "treated and cared for not criminalised", according to a senior UK police officer.

Writing in the Observer, Chief Constable Mike Barton of Durham Police said prohibition had put billions of pounds into the hands of criminals.

He called for an open debate on the problems caused by drugs.

The Home Office reiterated its stance and said drugs were illegal because they were dangerous.

'Controlled'

The chief constable - who is the intelligence lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) - said he believed decriminalisation of Class A drugs would take away the income of dealers, destroy their power, and that a "controlled environment" would be a more successful way of tackling the issue.

He said when faced with the "extremely damaging" impacts of alcohol, his argument to decriminalise drugs may appear weakened, but called for an open and honest debate on the matter.

A petition is calling on the government to follow the advice of the Home Affairs Committee and introduce a Royal Commission on drug law reform.

Mr Barton said: "If an addict were able to access drugs via the NHS or something similar, then they would not have to go out and buy illegal drugs.

"Buying or being treated with, say, diamorphine is cheap. It's cheap to produce it therapeutically.

"Not all crime gangs raise income through selling drugs, but most of them do in my experience. So offering an alternative route of supply to users cuts their income stream off.

"What I am saying is that drugs should be controlled. They should not, of course, be freely available."

Mr Barton compared drugs prohibition to the ban on alcohol in the US in the 1920s which fuelled organised crime.

Mr Barton told the Observer: "Have we not learned the lessons of prohibition in history?"

"The Mob's sinister rise to prominence in the US was pretty much funded through its supply of a prohibited drug, alcohol. That's arguably what we are doing in the UK."

'Revenue for villains'

He said some young people saw drug dealers as glamorous gangsters and envied their wealth.

The officer said drug addicts must be treated and cared for and encouraged to break the cycle of addiction - they did not need to be criminalised.

He said: "I think addiction to anything - drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc - is not a good thing, but outright prohibition hands revenue streams to villains.

"Since 1971 [the Misuse of Drugs Act] prohibition has put billions into the hands of villains who sell adulterated drugs on the streets.

"If you started to give a heroin addict the drug therapeutically, then we would not have the scourge of hepatitis C and Aids spreading among needle users, for instance. I am calling for a controlled environment, not a free-for-all."

Man smoking crack cocaine
Heroin and crack cocaine users in England fell below 300,000 for the first time in 2010-11

According to UK-wide figures released on Friday by Public Health England, 120 of 6,364 newly-diagnosed HIV cases in 2012 were said to have been acquired through injecting drugs.

New laws were announced in July by Home Secretary Theresa May to allow drug treatment providers the opportunity to offer addicts foil - used as a surface to heat up drugs like heroin - as part of efforts to get addicts into treatment, and to protect their health.

The number of heroin and crack cocaine users in England have fallen below 300,000 for the first time, according to figures by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.

The figure peaked at 332,090 in 2005-06 before dropping to 298,752 in 2010-11.

War on drugs

Mr Barton said if the "war on drugs" meant trying to reduce illicit supply then it had failed.

There were 43 organised crime groups on their radar in the Durham Constabulary area alone, he added.

Mr Barton is among a small number of top police officers in the UK who have called for a major review of drugs policy.

Durham's police and crime commissioner, Ron Hogg, said he agreed with Mr Barton's stance.

"Mike and I are totally at one on this," he said.

"We've had a number of discussions about drugs and whether we should decriminalise and take control. Our current view is quite simple: that the current drugs strategy legislation has not succeeded."

Mr Hogg said Mr Barton was taking a responsible position, and added: "Crime will decrease if we can actually legalise or decriminalise drugs usage and treat the offender rather than deal with the symptoms thereafter, and that's what we really have to focus on."

Chief Constable Andy Bliss, who is Acpo's lead on drug-related crime, said it was up to MPs to decide whether to legalise drugs.

He said: "Government policy on drugs enforcement is very clear and unambiguous and our job as police officers is to enforce the law.

"Clearly, a senior colleague like Mike Barton is entitled to his views and he has added his contribution to the national debate, but it would be Acpo's position that these are matters for parliament to decide."

Danny Kushlick, of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the group was delighted to see a serving chief constable willing to stand up and "tell the truth ", that prohibition does not work.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous. They destroy lives and blight communities.

"The UK's approach on drugs remains clear, we must help individuals who are dependent by treatment, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites