Decriminalisation of drugs

Current legislation has created an environment where the link between organised criminals and the most vulnerable is strong and almost freely exploitative. Despite all the efforts to reduce the supply and the demand, drug misuse continues, and we must ask: what we can do differently. If the aim is to stop people taking drugs, and stop people committing crime in order to fund their habit, we must follow the evidence and support people to recover rather than send them to prison.


Enforcement agencies, over time, have had pockets of success in seizing significant quantities of drugs, but this has not limited the long-term supply. This is largely due to the fact that the criminals have altered their supply routes and methods, and exploited changing technologies such as the dark web and postal services (such as track my parcel), and it is now more common for suppliers to exploit the postal service by sending drugs more frequently in smaller quantities- no longer do we see over 100kg seizures of Class A drugs entering the UK.

As a former police officer, I have lost count on the number of large scale early morning raids that I have participated in. Yet, the simple truth is that these activities-which take months, sometimes years in the planning- do no more than disrupt the supply market for the very shortest of periods. In one undercover policing operation which took 6 months to plan, cost over £0.5 million and saw 30 people arrested for their involvement in the supply of Class A drugs, 2 recovering addicts who had been arrested were asked how long we had strangled the supply of Heroin; one estimated 4 hours and the other estimated 2. The principal reason is supply, demand and profit.  With steady demand from addicted people, dealers move into the market place.

And even if we do succeed in reducing the supply of drugs, the demand is still there. So I have no doubt that that demand will be filled, possibly by New Psychoactive substances or other chemically produced drugs. We must reduce demand.


What we need is a means of making the market in controlled drugs less lucrative. This requires a different approach; one that reduces demand for the product. Addicts should be treated and supported into recovery, removing them as consumers. Their entrapment in criminal justice is a waste of police time, a waste of public spend, does not help addicts to recover, provides a continued market to dealers, and dissuades addicts from revealing themselves for treatment for fear of the criminal consequences.

The strategy of decriminalising addiction, in order to support recovery, would be the most effective in avoiding their route to criminality.  If we take Colorado as an example, since the regulation of cannabis, the state has benefited from a decrease in crime rates, a decrease in traffic fatalities, an increase in tax revenue and economic output from retail cannabis sales, and an increase in jobs.


The crux of the strategy we are working towards in County Durham and Darlington involves redefining the problem- individual drug addiction- as a health and community safety issue, not a criminal justice issue. The Police already work in partnership with Directors in Public Health to deliver strategies that work whilst continuing to target the organised criminals who seek to make a profit by shattering the lives of others.

Durham is leading the way nationally for the ‘Drug Test on Arrest’ initiative which is rolled out across all of the force’s custody suites and is using equipment that indicates not only heroin or cocaine use, but other controlled substances as well. It allows the Force to steer a number of users away from the criminal justice system and towards health-based resolutions with the end aim of supporting recovery. Testing is carried out on people arrested for certain “trigger” offences, such as dishonesty crimes including shop thefts, burglaries and robberies. As of 16.02.15, there have been 711 tests completed; within these tests, only 135 people have tested negative for no substances, this represents 19% (1 in 5) of all people tested.

The Women’s Diversion Scheme in Durham and Darlington offers a credible alternative to prosecution for many low level adult female offenders, focusing on why the subject has offended and seeks to address those issues to prevent reoffending. Out of 158 women who took part in the scheme, 62% have not gone on to reoffend, and of those who failed, a further 64% of those who had been offered the scheme but failed to engage had reoffended.

Developing this further, Durham Constabulary has introduced Checkpoint. It is potentially a revolutionary way of tackling reoffending.  It is a culture changing initiative for the police and partners. The intention under this initiative is to provide a credible alternative to prosecution by intervening at the earliest opportunity to prevent someone from offending again. The programme offers a ‘contract to engage’ for the arrested person, based on the critical pathways of offending. Specialist navigators will identify underlying lifestyle issues linked to offending and divert them away from the Criminal Justice System by signposting them on to appropriate services. Failure to engage or complete the contract will trigger the prosecution procedures to continue as they would normally do.


We can’t go on telling kids that if they take drugs it will ruin their lives, with the follow up being that if we catch them taking drugs we will ruin their lives. We must move away from the criminalisation of addicts, and focus on treatment and recovery. We should be focusing on the best way to minimise harm, and 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 organised crime groups-the real criminals making money out of others’ misery.