"It's a myth that we can arrest our way out of drug problems" - Mike Barton speech at CDPRG launch

Former Chief Constable Durham Police Mike Barton

I joined Lancashire police in 1980 and this month I retired as Chief Constable of Durham. Throughout those 39 years the drug laws have essentially remained unchanged.

In 2000 the Police Federation’s review of drugs and the law, supported by the Home Office, found no evidence that severe custodial penalties or their enforcement, however vigorous, was having any impact on supply. They said the law should be based on seven principles. I will deal with just the first three.

Firstly it should be used as a means of reducing demand and support the broader agenda of health, prevention and education. Well, since 2000 the police have advocated a health-based approach and yet it is still primarily seen as a criminal justice issue.

Number two, it should reflect the latest scientific understanding. But governments have consistently ignored scientific advice. Indeed troublesome scientists have been sacked.

And thirdly the law should be realistically enforceable. An independent enquiry nearly 20 years old feels more enlightened and far-sighted than current policy.

When I first joined the police I believed that arrest and imprisonment was the best way to control crime and criminals. In the 1990s my views changed from a focus on investigation to one of reduction and prevention. Part of my inspiration was, as a DI, having to arrest the sons of villains I have arrested as a DC. It was also in the 90s that I investigated far too many tragic deaths of young men, all recently released from prison, found in filthy public toilets, hypodermic needle in arm, having misjudged the relative strength of drugs outside prison. After months inside on diluted doses, they were ill-equipped for street-strength.

But the challenge understandably laid at the door of policing is to enforce the law and protect the public. In 2001 I travelled to North America to study policing. In Vancouver, an otherwise well-policed city, I saw people ‘shooting up’ in the streets. I resolved then to tackle open drug markets i.e. those where un-referenced strangers can buy drugs. Deploying undercover police officers allows the police to capture street-dealers. In 2012 I was rather pleased with myself in Durham. I had just become Chief and we were starting to accumulate accolades. One operation lasted several months, netted over 30 dealers and cost over half a million pounds. We closed markets for about four hours. Armed organised ganges moved into the vacuum the police had conveniently created. Quite the opposite of our ambition. The county liines phenomenon is the latest manifestation of the volatility and danger of this trade and how it reacts to police tactics.

In Mexico in 2017 alone there were over 29,000 drugs related homicides. Over 200,000 killings since 2006. Studies show that this violence went hand in hand with government and law enforcement targeting of the drugs trade.

In 1979 Afghanistan produced less than 100 tonnes of opium. It’s now 9,200 tonnes. So a 90 fold increase. Einstein defined the law of insanity as to keep doing what you’ve always done but expecting a different result. In 1979 Pakistan had zero drug addicts. In 1980 - 5,000. In 1985 - 1.3 million. Reports published in the Lancet prove people on heroin assisted treatment commit less crime, are healthier, and quit their addiction quicker, yet we always revert to oral methadone treatment and the newspapers and commentators repeat the mantra the NHS must not give illegal drugs to addicts.

The historical perspective of alcohol in the US in the 1920s is clear. Prohibition did not work. Over 10,000 people died from illicitly produced poisonous liquor alone. The mafia became incredibly rich and hugely powerful. That’s exactly what is happening now in the UK. We have created fertile ground for organised crime to hoover up their profits and accumulate incredible wealth.

As a serving police chief I asked for there to be a debate and yet mostly all I got were brickbats from myopic, often hypocritical moralists who falsely peddle the myth that we can arrest our way out of this problem.