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Cautious welcome for chief constable's comments on war on drugs
7:30am Monday 30th September 2013 in News
A CHIEF constable's controversial call to decriminalise hard drugs such as heroin has won cautious backing from two of the region's elected police watchdogs.
Durham chief constable Mike Barton claimed the war on drugs had comprehensively failed and suggested making Class A drugs available to addicts on the NHS.
Last night, Durham Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Ron Hogg gave his chief constable his full backing over the controversial policy, while Cleveland counterpart Barry Coppinger called for a Royal Commission to debate the issue.
However, Northumbria PCC and former Solicitor General Vera Baird said drug use was declining and insisted decriminalisation was not the right approach Writing in The Observer newspaper, Mr Barton said decriminalisation would cut off the income stream of the criminal gangs currently profiting from prohibition.
He said: "If the war on drugs means trying to reduce the illicit supply of drugs, then it has comprehensively failed.
"Politicians, professionals and the media collude in the fiction that we are winning the war on drugs".
Mr Barton, who has waged a very public battle against organised crime, said there were 43 criminal groups in County Durham and Darlington and most of them have the illegal drug supply as their primary source of income.
He said: "Offering an alternative route of supply to users cuts off the gangs income stream.
"Prohibition has put billions into the hands of villains who sell adulterated drugs on the streets.
"If an addict were able to access drugs via the NHS or some similar organisation, then they would not have to go out and buy illegal drugs".
Mr Barton added: "I am calling for a controlled environment, not a free for all".
The officer, who has served for nearly 34 years, said he had witnessed a worsening drug addiction problem since prohibition began in 1971 with the Misuse of Drugs Act.
He said addicts needed to be treated and cared for, not criminalised.
His views were echoed by Ron Hogg, who was himself a police officer for 30 years before being elected PCC for County Durham and Darlington.
He said: "In all the years that we have tried to tackle the drugs problem, we have not really cracked it in any way, shape or form.
"There is still enormous harm being done in our communities and to individuals.
"The main beneficiaries are criminal gangs who are making a profit out of peoples misery.
"I honestly think we have got to something different if we are going to make difference.
"We have got to do something radically different and I do support him in this".
Barry Coppinger, PCC for Cleveland, said: "I think it is a good idea to have a public debate on this very complex issue.
"The Chief Constable of Durham has set out his experience and I am sure others will have quite different views.
"It would be good to have a Royal Commission looking at all aspects as things stand now, so people are fully informed and I would call on the government to set one up".
However, Vera Baird, PCC for Northumrbia, said while she respected Mr Barton she did not agree with his comments citing the violence committed to get access to the drug crack.
She said: "Crack could never be lawfully available.
"The thing about having drugs as a regulated business is people will always look for them cheaper where ever they can be found. There will be rackets round legitimate markets.
"You might end up with more people taking a punt at drug taking and falling into the hands of criminals anyway.
"It is not the right approach and drug taking is on the decline so I think his argument is weakened".
A similar call made in 2007 by Richard Brunstrom, former deputy chief constable of Cleveland Police, for heroin to be available on the NHS and the legalisation of all drugs was dismissed as a counsel of despair by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Tonight, Chief Constable Andy Bliss, Acpo policing lead on drug-related crime, said: "Recent evidence suggests that, overall, drug misuse in the UK is falling.
"However, government policy on drugs enforcement is very clear and unambiguous and our job as police officers is to enforce the law.
"Clearly, a senior colleague like Mike Barton is entitled to his views and he has added his contribution to the national debate, but it would be Acpo's position that these are matters for Parliament to decide".
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