The official in charge of the UK’s second largest police force signalled a radical new approach to the war on drugs on Monday, including plans to keep some drug offenders out of criminal courts and provide users heroin on prescription.
David Jamieson, West Midlands Police and Crime commissioner, said drugs were costing £1.4bn of public money a year in his region alone, and “fresh ideas” were needed to tackle the problem.
Mr Jamieson, who sets the region’s policing priorities and budget, said the time has come to treat addiction as a public health issue – a move that has been welcomed by charities and medical experts.
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This will include schemes that provide heroin as part of treatment, to reduce petty crime and stop money being funnelled to criminal gangs – a move with some government support.
It will also include a review of heroin consumption rooms, which already run in EU countries including France, Spain and Portugal but are opposed by the Home Office.
These are medically supervised spaces providing clean needles and equipment for users. They have been shown to significantly lower overdose rates and increase use of rehab programmes.
The schemes are backed by MPs, as well as medical groups, such as the British Medical Association and the Government’s own policy advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).
Experts have said the Government must “accept responsibility” for rising drug deaths driven in part by austerity, with 3,744 people dying of overdoses in 2016 – about 70 per cent of which were overdoses of illicit drugs.
The West Midlands’ intervention is aimed at doing away with the failed enforcement tactics associated with the war on drugs, and plans to introduce several other initiatives, some of which are already working in other parts of the UK, including:
- A formal alternative to the court system that will direct users to treatment programmes rather than jails.
This could be similar to the Checkpoint programme run by Durham Constabulary, which offers offenders, including low-level drug dealers and consumers, the chance to avoid prosecution if they avoid reoffending and complete community service and restorative justice programmes over four months.
- City-centre testing for recreational drugs used by night clubbers, a scheme that has previously been run at festivals and provides information on the strength and purity of drugs being taken.
- Training and equipping police officers to deliver anti-overdose drug naloxone.
- Seizing more money from large criminal gangs, and reinvesting it in drug prevention programmes.
“Despite the good work being done by many, collectively our approach to drugs is failing,” Mr Jamieson said.
“Drugs are costing the West Midlands £1.4bn each year. It means people are forced to live with more crime, public services are put under strain and not enough is done to reduce the suffering of those who are addicted.
“If we are to cut crime and save lives there’s one thing we can all agree on; we need fresh ideas.
“These are bold, but practical proposals that will reduce crime, the cost to the public purse and the terrible harm caused by drugs.
“These proposals tackle the drugs market head on, hitting the organised criminals profiting from the misery of others.”
Campaigner Rose Humphries, of the Anyone’s Child project, welcomed the change of direction for police forces.
Ms Humphries lost two sons to heroin overdoses, and she said: “Bitter experience has taught me that current drugs policy didn’t protect my children, and it won’t protect yours.
“If their drug use had been treated as a health issue instead of a criminal one, Jake and Roland would probably be alive today.”
The commissioner’s office reports that every three days in the West Midlands somebody dies from drug poisoning, while organised criminals are profiting.
Half of all burglary, theft, shoplifting and robbery is committed by people suffering from serious addiction to drugs including heroin and crack cocaine.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a group that backs the regulated role for medically supervised drug taking as treatment, told The Independent there is a “rising tide” of recognition that criminalising those experiencing addiction was not working.
It added that the Government will have to rethink its opposition to drug consumption rooms as support grows.
The organisations’ director of campaigns, Martin Powell, said: “Our failed approach to drugs cannot be allowed to continue. Drug deaths are at a record high, while young people’s drug use has risen from 15 to 24 per cent in three years.
“We welcome the PCC’s recommendations, which are a sensible, real-world response to drug use and supply in the West Midlands, which we hope everyone will get behind.
“The benefits will be huge: crimes committed to fund drug use will fall, as will profits for organised crime gangs, while overdoses, HIV infections, and ambulance call-outs will be cut.”
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Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said the recommendations were welcome. “We know that diverting people suffering as a result of harmful substance use away from the criminal justice system and into treatment leads to better outcomes for the individual and for society, and we know that pragmatic harm reduction interventions, such as drug consumption rooms, heroin assisted treatment and drug safety testing, can play an extremely helpful role in that process,” she added.
“It is heartening to hear more influential voices, with on-the-ground experience of these issues, give these measures their backing.”
A Home Office spokesperson backed the move to bring together police and health partners, but added: “This Government has no plans whatsoever to introduce drug consumption rooms. There is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms in the UK.
“A range of offences is likely to be committed in the operation of drug consumption rooms. We expect local police forces to enforce the law in such circumstances.
What’s the evidence base for drug consumption rooms and why aren’t they in the UK?
Seventy-eight consumption room facilities are in operation across seven EU countries, as well as Canada and Australia, and while the Home Office backs heroin assisted treatment it has opposed consumption rooms in the UK.
Home Office minister, Victoria Atkins, in a Westminster debate last month, said: “We have no intention of introducing drug consumption rooms,” and claimed they were not always evidence backed.
This followed efforts, by council and health chiefs in Scotland, to establish a consumption room for heroin users in Glasgow, which is currently prevented because of the risk of legal prosecution of staff.
But an evaluation of the supervised injection site “Insite” scheme in Vancouver, Canada – seen by The Independent – found it cut overdoses by 35 per cent, increased uptake of detoxification services by users, and saved more than $17m (£10.12m) by reducing new HIV infections.
It led to fewer cases of drugs consumers injecting in public spaces, and less spending on needle clear ups.
It was also not shown to increase the numbers of heroin users or crime in the area – with vehicle break-ins falling.
Canadian health chiefs involved with the scheme wrote to Ms Atkins following her suggestion that it was not evidence backed, saying her arguments were “neither factually nor legally accurate”.
In a letter seen by The Independent, they added: “We invite you and your colleagues to visit Vancouver, tour Insite and other harm reduction facilities in the city (and elsewhere in the country), and see for yourself how such facilities operate.”
Richard Elliott, one of the signatories and executive director of the Canadian HIV/Aids Legal Network, told The Independent that they too had struggled to introduce the first drug consumption rooms.
“They were a hard sell in Canada, dating back to the late 1990s, but lots of advocacy by people who use drugs, human rights advocates, public health people, some enlightened municipal people in Vancouver, eventually broke through – and significantly, this was against the unfortunate backdrop of the last major overdose crisis,” he said.
However, protests, legal action and “backsliding” under the previous Conservative federal Government have shown that progress can be wiped out.
“We’re in a very different place now when it comes to harm reduction, including drug consumption rooms – but nothing can be taken for granted,” Mr Elliott said.
“What appears to be happening in the UK now is reminiscent of what has happened over the last 20 years in Canada.”
In Scotland, the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership is continuing to push for a treatment room site. A spokesperson said: “Discussions are ongoing on how we can best secure the legislative framework needed to ensure the facility can open legitimately.
“With HIV infection still rising among drug injectors and drug-related deaths a persistent issue for the city, the case for the facility in Glasgow remains as compelling as ever.”