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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Britain’s police are waking up to the futility of the war on drugs

Published by CapX (23rd October, 2018)

Few people would have expected Bernard Hogan-Howe to become the nation’s latest outspoken campaigner for review of our drug laws. Yet this straight-talking former copper, who started out pounding the streets of South Yorkshire then rose over almost four decades in uniform to become chief of the Metropolitan Police, has just called for an urgent inquiry into the legalisation of cannabis.

Hogan-Howe, who retired as Britain’s most senior officer last year, admits he took a tough line on drugs during his policing days, partly influenced by growing evidence that cannabis can cause mental health problems in some young users. But his views shifted while making a Channel Four Dispatches documentary, during which he saw the quantity of cannabis being seized in Liverpool before visiting Colorado to assess the impact of legalisation.

He admits he was shocked by the potency of some products on sale and clearly did not enjoy visiting a smoke-filled cannabis club. Yet he listened to those such as the mayor of Denver, a former opponent of reform who now accepts the move caused few problems. He saw how tax take from cannabis was funding a new police station and a pay rise for officers. And now he says rightly it is hard to justify criminalising a substance less harmful than products such as alcohol that can be bought in a shop.

It is easy to sneer that this is just another example of a prominent public figure pushing a more sensible approach to drugs after leaving office. There are many similar examples. Lord Falconer, Labour’s former Lord Chancellor, is the latest recruit to join the ranks of such turncoats. Yet Hogan-Howe’s move after looking at the evidence exposes something more significant. For the police, frustrated by the stifling stasis at Westminster, are increasingly leading the way in pushing reform.

Four forces — from Durham in the north-east through to Avon, North Wales and the West Midlands — have effectively introduced decriminalisation. They have stopped prosecuting all people arrested in possession of drugs, offering an alternative route of education and treatment rather than the traditional well-trodden path leading to court and jail. The trail-blazer is Durham, which has even stopped charging low-level heroin dealers if they are addicts selling to other street users — and is protected by recognition as the country’s best-performing force.

Meanwhile in Bristol, police have started to permit the safety testing of drugs in the city centre so that clubbers know precisely what they are ingesting. I know of other forces looking to emulate such sensible harm reduction moves. In Scotland, police even support drug consumption rooms that would allow users to safely inject drugs, but these have been deemed a step too far by the government. Clearly ministers can live with people possessing drugs and testing them but not actually using them.

The reason for such moves by police is simple: they can see the self-defeating stupidity of prohibition. Officers know that pouring resources into battling the war on drugs is pointless, as proved by the falling prices, rising potency and shocking number of overdose deaths. The arrival of synthetic products, often sold online and much stronger, makes their struggle even harder since they defeat their standard policing tactics. Then they are seeing the same people burgle homes, clog courts and cram prisons. And they know the solutions to drug use are found in treatment centres and mental health clinics, not in courts and prisons — especially when spice is so lethally prevalent behind bars, again demonstrating the futility of this fight.

There have always been a handful of progressive police officers on the issue. But the big difference was arrival of austerity coinciding with increasing violence of drug gangs, an inevitable consequence of the drug war. This is exposed with startling clarity in two superb books by former undercover officer Neil Woods, who charts the spiral of savagery as crooks struggle to control the lucrative trade with spoils of victory going to the most violent. Britain’s drug trade is valued by the National Crime Agency at about £5 billion a year — and it is thought the authorities interdict less than five per cent of this traffic.

Just look at the latest figures showing a rise in killings and stabbings, leaving some communities trapped in fear. Woods concluded at the end of Good Cop, Bad War that after risking his life to infiltrate this dangerous underground world, he put users and minor players in prison for a total of 1,000 years — yet disrupted supplies for 18 hours at best. ‘A thousand years of captivity so that a few addicts had to wait an extra 18 hours for their fix. Does that seem wise? Or does it seem insane to the point of actual immorality?’

The coalition’s cuts to budgets and numbers crystallised the need for fresh thinking and for police to focus their resources, resulting in this sotto voce challenge to official state policies. Ironically, it was aided by the same government’s desire to promote localism, since bold elected police commissioners have provided political cover for reformist chief constables in places such as Durham and North Wales.

Dying citizens, destroyed families, drive-by shootings and teenagers dragged into county line exploitation are all collateral damage of a tragic public policy failure. Yet just as it took a desperate mother to force legalisation of medical cannabis, what damning indictment of political cowardice that it is left to the despairing police to push more sensible drug policies, such is the pathetic inertia at Westminster.

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