Theresa May’s tacit support for drug reform

Published by The ipaper (17th December, 2018)

Theresa May has a lot on her plate at the moment, despite surviving last week’s attempted coup by her party’s right-wing absurdists. Behind the froth, the fury and the foolhardiness of Brexit something remarkable has happened on her home patch. Bear in mind she is a former home secretary with hardline views on drugs. With the Prime Minister’s full knowledge and tacit support, her own police force has effectively decriminalised heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. 

Thames Valley Police is playing down its initiative. After months of planning, which included meetings with May, the force quietly announced launch of a pilot ‘diversion’ scheme ‘to prevent the cycle of re-offending.’ People caught with drugs for personal use will be urged to speak with an addiction service rather ‘than cautioned, charged or even compelled to attend rehabilitation schemes’. So what one newspaper calls ‘the most lenient’ drug reform in Britain is taking place in the Prime Minister’s backyard.

A year ago May told the House of Commons ‘it is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs’ as she talked about the damage drugs can do to users and their families. She has admitted being influenced by Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, a prominent campaigner in her constituency who tragically lost her own son to heroin and runs a heavily-used helpline for families. This former government adviser now backs the police scheme, saying her focus is harm reduction. ‘There is a shift in thinking and we cannot be risk averse,’ she told me.

Few people beyond a handful of ostrich-like eccentrics still think the disastrous war on drugs makes much sense as deaths soar, prices plummet, potency rises, new products arrive and gangsters grow more violent fighting over the illicit market. This is a textbook policy failure. Britain accounts for one-third of drug deaths in western Europe with heroin-related mortality doubling in six years. The 3,756 deaths known to be linked to drugs last year were more than twice the number of fatalities seen on roads. Ten a day, 70 a week, 280 a month. Meanwhile funding for treatment services crashed.

People suffering the torment of addiction are sad, not bad, people. They need help with a chronic condition, not to have their lives ruined further as they clog up courts and jails. Any problem drug user not in treatment costs society on average £26,704 a year through near-constant use of medical services and crime such as burglaries and shoplifting – and almost twice that if stuck behind bars.

Even prisons with all their security are riddled with drugs, while politicians pretend they can keep them off the streets of an island with 11,000 miles of coastline. It is easy, if utterly pointless, to send users to prison to join hundreds already inside for possession and thousands there for drug-related crimes. Far harder to force damaged individuals to confront their despair or demons – yet this smart approach is derided as going “soft” on drugs.

Portugal showed the impact of real leadership when it switched in 2001 to treating drugs as a public health problem rather than a criminal issue inspired by moral arrogance. Since then it has slashed the number of heroin users by two-thirds and with only 27 deaths in 2016 has the lowest mortality rate in western Europe.

An increasing number of politicians realise the futility of fighting a war on drugs that fuels violence, fosters discrimination, corrodes poor communities in our own country and cripples developing nations. The only winners are vicious crooks behind surging violence on our streets. Yet even now, with a handful of honourable exceptions on all sides, few politicians dare speak out. So we have the striking sight – as this move by Thames Valley underscores – of progressive police forces quietly changing policy to cut crime while Westminster bickers over Brexit.

This is partly down to austerity, which has sparked some vital public sector reform. But mostly police can see better than anyone the sheer stupidity of prohibition as they bust gangs, keep on arresting the same users and fail to dent drug flows. Some senior officers play to the gallery by blaming middle-class cocaine users. But smarter officers know it is simply pointless to pour scarce resources into combatting drugs through criminal justice when solutions are found in mental health clinics and treatment centres. The arrival of synthetic drugs, so hard to detect and another by-product of prohibition, increases pressure for fresh thinking.

Thames Valley is the fifth force to go down this route with minimal fanfare. The most high-profile is Durham, the best-performing force in England led by its irrepressible chief constable Mike Barton, which has even stopped charging low-level dealers if flogging a few drugs to feed their addiction. But three others – Avon and Somerset, North Wales and the West Midlands – are also switching to offering an alternative route towards rehabilitation rather than the well-trodden path to courts and prison. Some also permit testing of drugs so clubbers can know contents of their pills and powders. 

It is to the immense credit of leaders of these forces they have changed tack (and one more sign of the importance of localism as a motor for innovation). Scottish Tories, seeing more than twice as many drug-related deaths over the border, also moved towards harm reduction strategy with minimal fuss. Now the whole of Westminster needs to display similar leadership instead of blithely accepting the destroyed lives and devastated communities that are collateral damage of dreadful policy failure. Politicians, including the Prime Minister, should stop hiding behind the police by showing genuine leadership and reforming a policy that kills vulnerable people.

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