Doing What Works in Policing Drugs

former Chief Constable Tom Lloyd

A few years ago I wrote an open letter to Police across the country saying that we should change the way we tackle the harms caused by drugs and the criminal markets that supply them. To be clear, I am not in favour of people harming themselves by taking substances, whether illegally or not.

I do believe we can develop more effective ways to reduce harmful drug use, and the crime and violence associated with drug supply. We need to do what works, not simply what we’ve always done.

It was encouraging to see the announcement earlier this week that North Wales Police Force will not automatically prosecute low level possession offences, but offer users treatment and rehabilitation services. North Wales are joining a number of other Police Forces around the country showing leadership on the drugs issue by moving away from automatic criminalisation of users and taking an alternative, public health-based approach.

Other Police Forces should take note and think about their objectives. Are more drug arrests and seizures the only measures of success? Outcomes such as reduced harmful drug use, reduced crime, violence and anti-social behaviour and increased referrals for treatment are arguably more meaningful indicators of success. And if education and rehabilitation better achieve these outcomes, we should be willing to trial these approaches.

Overall, it costs less to treat and support drug users (if they need it) rather than to arrest and prosecute them. The less time we spend on non-problematic drug users the more we can spend on tackling serious and organised criminality.

Some problematic drug users are prolific offenders, but we should actively seek them out (not wait until they commit a crime) and offer support and treatment to help them change their lives and to reduce crime in the long term. I understand that it’s hard to sympathise with some problematic drug offenders who engage in very antisocial behaviour. But they are all somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father. They didn’t intend to end up this way so let’s help them to overcome their difficulties, not make their situation worse. For many, a criminal record is likely to cause them more harm than good.

 I believe in enforcing the law; it is our duty, but I think it is helpful to distinguish between two different types of laws. Laws prohibiting crimes like assault and theft relate to actions that are clearly wrong in themselves. Laws prohibiting drug taking are like laws prohibiting religious observance or homosexuality; not wrong in themselves, just offences created according to current fashion.

Drug law enforcement is very expensive and because we have limited resources it means that we cannot spend enough time on other crimes such as thefts and assaults that cause real harm. I am sure that we will see a change in the law and drugs will become legally controlled and regulated. Until then we must do all we can to tackle the harms caused by the drugs market, while remembering that criminalisation will not end the market, although it might provide temporary respite in a locality.

So my advice to Police, before using the criminal law to deal with a drug user, is to ask these questions:

Will this help the person I’m dealing with to improve their life? Will this help improve the lives of their families and friends? Will this help to improve the neighbourhood I police? Will it reduce crime in the longer term? Will it help reduce criminal profits from drug dealing?

If the answers are “No”, Police should ask why they are dealing with this as a criminal matter.

Finally, carrying on the way we are is not an option.

It's time to acknowledge that drugs are more dangerous when their production and supply is in the hands of criminals. Law enforcement for over 40 years has not reduced drug use. Under prohibition drug use has increased massively. Criminals promote drug use in order to make huge profits from the illicit market. I don’t like that and I want to see that stop.