Police chief: ‘I won’t arrest low-level dealers, even for selling heroin’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th November, 2017)

A police chief has declared that his force will stop prosecuting all drug addicts, along with ‘low-level’ dealers of heroin and cocaine.

Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton revealed the controversial plan, due to start next month, in an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday.

It is the first time a British police force has decided not to prosecute dealers, who usually face a minimum of 18 months in prison.

The shock move follows a two-year trial of a scheme that allows addicts to avoid court and a criminal record. Instead, they must agree to join a four-month Checkpoint programme that tackles underlying problems such as their lifestyles.

Now Mr Barton is extending the scheme to cover anyone cultivating cannabis and even some suppliers of cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. ‘From next month, anyone caught in possession of any drugs will go on Checkpoint,’ he said. ‘If they agree, they will not face prosecution or go to court.’

This will even include addicts selling drugs to other street users or their friends.

‘If they are selling heroin to feed their habit, we do not want to send them to prison,’ said Mr Barton. ‘They are technically dealers but if they are sad people rather than bad, we want to stop their addiction. Then we can focus on the really bad people.’

Mr Barton believes that addicts selling small quantities of hard drugs to fund their own use should be treated and helped to sort out chaotic lives rather than go to prison, allowing him to focus resources on criminal gangs.

He argues that sending addicts – even those dealing hard drugs –repeatedly to court does not stop them reoffending. ‘What’s the point in an addict going to court and getting a £50 fine? If they pay it at all, they will only steal or sell five bags of heroin to fund it. How does that help us?’ argued Mr Barton.

In March, this newspaper revealed that Mr Barton was planning to use police money to give free heroin to addicts to inject themselves twice a day in a supervised ‘shooting gallery’.

But extending the ‘softly-softly’ policy to those supplying hard drugs is politically explosive and sparked a backlash from MPs and campaign groups.

Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, a former teacher who founded the charity DrugFam following the death of her son, said: ‘This is absolutely wrong. If you are an active drug dealer, you are dealing in death.’

She accused Mr Barton of encouraging the ‘normalisation’ of drug use. ‘What kind of message does this send young people when they are in that reckless, experimental phase? There must be some kind of punishment,’ she said.

A report earlier this year by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed that Britain has the highest proportion of heroin addicts on the Continent, accounting for almost one in three of all its drug deaths. Britain is also facing a wave of lethal new synthetic drugs such as Spice, which is rife in jails, and Fentanyl, which can be a hundred times stronger than heroin and has been blamed for scores of deaths.

Mr Barton argues that his tactics free up police to target gangs running the drug trade and devastating communities. But it goes against the hardline stance of Theresa May.

The Prime Minister recently argued against drug reform after meeting Mrs Burton-Phillips, whose son started smoking cannabis and ended up killing himself as a heroin addict. ‘This has a huge impact on families,’ said Mrs May.

Mr Barton says the Checkpoint scheme is tougher and more effective than a caution or court fine. It makes offenders sign a contract not to reoffend, undergo mental health treatment and sort out chaotic lifestyles, backed up by the threat of court.

‘We want fewer addicts and fewer drugs consumed while reducing the supply of money going to criminal gangs. All the evidence says this is the best way to do it,’ said Mr Barton.

Official sentencing guidelines suggest a ‘starting point’ of 18 months in prison for selling drugs, with sentences rising for harder drugs and street dealers of heroin, who should get at least four-and- a-half years’ imprisonment.

But Mr Barton, who joined the police in 1980 and runs a force judged ‘outstanding’ by inspectors, believes the traditional ‘war on drugs’ has failed. ‘They are now cheaper, stronger, more dangerous and more available than they have ever been,’ he said.

Checkpoint was launched in 2015 for adult minor offenders, including cannabis users, with fewer than three convictions. Avon and Somerset Police also offer people caught with small quantities of drugs an ‘educative’ alternative to court.

Durham police have spent £286,000 hiring ‘navigators’, including former addicts, to help offenders access benefits, health care, housing, jobs and treatment. They believe this will pay for itself by relieving pressure on public services.

Mr Barton is backed by Ron Hogg, a former deputy chief constable who now serves as Durham’s Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner. ‘We have been putting people through the criminal justice system but not sorting their problems,’ he said.

But some Tory MPs accused Mr Barton of usurping Westminster. ‘I do not doubt the Chief Constable’s good intentions but it is not the job of police to decide drug policy over Parliament,’ said Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee.

‘Criminalisation prevents people from using drugs because they are illegal. Those who argue decriminalisation will reduce use seem to pay no attention to the devastation already caused by alcohol.’

A Home Office spokesman said the Government had no intention of decriminalising drugs, adding: ‘It is vital the police and criminal justice system have a range of measures available to prevent drug use.

‘However, they also have the tools to deal robustly with serious and repeat offenders who cause the most harm in our communities.’

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