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It’s slow, overdue but it’s well underway. We’re on the path to the decriminalisation of drugs.

November 23, 2017   6 mins

Grahame Morris has been called many things in his political career but he could never be accused of carpetbagging. He was born and brought up in Easington, a struggling slice of North-East England sandwiched between Hartlepool and Sunderland that was once branded the most deprived community in Britain. His father was an electrician at Murton Colliery, his mother worked part-time in a pit canteen and he served as a local councillor before winning the parliamentary seat for Labour seven years ago.

He knows every nook and cranny of his struggling coastal community, which sits on the North Sea and has been battered by the fierce gales of globalisation. The pit closed in 1993. It had operated for eight decades before then – overcoming the challenge of exploiting seams which stretched several miles beneath the chilly waves to the east. What remains is a legacy of poverty, people on benefits and mental health problems. Many living there today dull their pain with drugs – Ā both legal and illegal.

Over the last six months, this has caused the left-wing MP to do something seen too rarely in politics. For he has shifted his views on a contentious issue after looking closely at the evidence. Morris has concluded the war on drugs has failed, especially in communities such as his own, and that it is time to try a fresh approach. “Drug-related crime is a big problem in these old industrial areas,” he told me:

“Traditional remedies are not working. We are dealing with the consequences of massive changes in society. People have social problems, health problems, mental problems – and incarcerating them is not the answer.”

He is right. The idea that jailing people addicted to drugs will solve core problems and sort out chaotic lives is clearly absurd. Thankfully, we are starting to see that the crazy concept of criminalising drug users, inflamed into a madcap ‘war’ in the early 1970s by an American president who turned out to be a crook himself, has run its course with reform seeping through the West. The only people who benefitted were the planetā€™s most lethal gangsters, showered with gold as they sowed destruction around the globe, along with banks laundering dirty cash and politicians posturing about ā€˜protecting kidsā€™.

The only people who benefitted were the planetā€™s most lethal gangsters, showered with gold as they sowed destruction around the globe

But for politicians it is a brave step to admit they have been wrong and that we need an alternative approach, especially amid a hostile media narrative confusing this issue. Morris admits he is “nervous” after being converted to the cause of drug reform over the past six months:

“I was absolutely opposed to this but now Iā€™ve looked at the evidence. We need a more intelligent approach. I know it is controversial but at the moment we are just making problems worse. If addicts are given custodial sentences, they are coming out worse after attending academies of crime.”

The proselytiser behind his progressive new stance was, perhaps ironically, a local police chief. Mike Barton, Durhamā€™s chief constable, has become Britainā€™s most important figure in pushing for a more sensible drug strategy against the inertia that engulfs Westminsterā€™s pair of main parties. A likeable Lancastrian, he admits that when he started pounding the beat as a young cop in Blackpool he shared the standard police view of catching and locking up drug users. Now he points to drugs being “cheaper, stronger, more dangerous and more available than they have ever been” as proof of policy failure.

Barton is becoming more and more outspoken on this issue. Two years ago he launched a scheme called Checkpoint that offers minor offenders, including drug users, an alternative to court involving treatment and assistance with sorting out lifestyles. Having seen success, when compared with a criminal justice response, and having carried out local focus group testing, Barton has just made waves by revealing that from next month he is extending this project to people dealing cocaine and heroin to fund addiction, despite official guidelines that they should usually serve at least 18 months in prison. He also backs drug decriminalisation and addicts being given state-supplied heroin in supervised treatment centres.

Durham police is spending almost Ā£300,000 hiring experts to assist offenders, arguing this will soon be saved from the public purse by reduced crime and health demands. The team includes Gary Lynch, 42, from Bishop Auckland, a former heroin addict who spent several years living on the streets. “It was a horrific experience but I could not find a way out. Addiction is a powerful thing.” Lynch told me he saw about 30 people die from drugs. “I was never bothered about illegality,” he said. “This is not a soft option. Change is never easy, you have to work at it. This is tougher than going to court and just getting a fine.”

Grahame Morris MP has seen the effects of drugs on his constituency and seen that jailing people does not solve the problem. Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/PA Images

This is something I have heard repeatedly in both Britain and the United States when reporting on innovative prevention schemes. Forget hackneyed political talk of being tough on crime by sending people to jail, let alone any stupid idea that ā€˜prison works’. It is more challenging for addicts to confront personal demons and change lifestyles than to spend a few months behind bars – especially since many prisons are flooded with drugs, a salutary fact that underlines the futility of trying to stop them from being sold in wider society. The guiding principle should be harm reduction at every level, from addiction treatment facilities and safe injection centres, though to tested products at point of sale for recreational drugs.

Barton would beĀ playing a dangerous political game but for two important factors. First, he has firm support from Ron Hogg, Durhamā€™s Police, Crime and Victimā€™s Commissioner who speaks with passion as another convert and with the authority of being a former deputy chief constable. The pair have 72 years of policing between them. “We are hard-nosed. We will do what works,” said Hogg. “If you see the same people locked up over and over again you realise the criminal justice approach simply is not working.” It is also a criminal waste of resources when police numbers have fallen and it costs Ā£35,000 a year to keep someone in jail.

Second, Durham is the best performing force in the country, which makes Barton and Hogg hard to challenge – especially by politicians cutting public spending. Little wonder their moves are being watched so closely by other forces. Avon and Somerset has already adopted a similar ā€˜educativeā€™ alternative to court for minor drug offences. And three other forces have adopted a more pragmatic position on cannabis so they can target efforts on the gangsters profiting from the prohibition which is scarring their communities.

Yet Morris is far from unique. Behind the scenes, I also sense the tectonic plates of politics are finally starting to shift in Westminster with increasing number of MPs backing reform and seeing it as a long-overdue issue of social justice. A few are now articulate advocates of total legalisation and regulation such as former Tory prisons minister Crispin Blunt (who raised the issue at prime Minister’s Questions yesterday) and Labourā€™s Thangam Debbonaire. Others are more cautious, joining the likes of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in supporting milder action such as permitting medicinal use of cannabis. Even a couple of ministers in key positions have indicated to me, in recent months, that they are privately open to serious reform.

Britain has the highest proportion of heroin addict in all of Europe. Credit: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

This is not surprising whenĀ Britain has the highest proportion of heroin addicts in Europe, accounting for almost one in three of the continentā€™s drug deaths. This is stark contrast to Portugal, which decriminalised drugs in 2001 and has since slashed the number of heroin users with the lowest drug death levels in Europe at one-tenth our rate. It has also seen a sharp fall in young peopleā€™s use of illegal drugs. No wonder there is change afoot from Canada to Germany. And Glasgow is preparing to introduce medically-supervised drug consumption rooms to cut the spread of dangerous diseases such as HiV and hepatitis.

Too many MPs, of course, still spout the deranged guff that a dangerous drug such as alcohol is fine but people whose pleasure comes from cannabis or ecstasy should go to jail. Or assume there is some kind of strange conveyer belt leading from a spliff to injecting heroin, ignoring the reality that both mild and hard drugs are sold by criminals in a free market devoid of any consumer protection. Or worst of all, still argue addicts can be cured by being sent to prison rather than to a treatment centre.

Yet even some opponents of liberalisation are watching events in Durham with interest. “Iā€™m against decriminalisation but Iā€™m also aware traditional law enforcement methods have not produced results and drugs remain a problem,” said Tim Loughton, a former childrenā€™s minister and Tory member of the home affairs select committee. “This is certainly a radical move by Durham. But letā€™s see what happens.ā€™” One more sign of changing times – and hope that good sense might finally be breaking through the befuddled confusion that has clouded Britainā€™s drugs debate for too long.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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