As Durham Police take another step on the road to decriminalising drug use, Rob Etherson - a former addict - tells Joe Willis that lawmakers should be asking why drugs are so popular

ROB Etherson knowns what he is talking about when it comes to drugs and their impact on society and individuals.

Small-scale cannabis users and growers to escape prosecution

The former heroin user spent around 25 years addicted to heroin and alcohol. The 52-year-old went through rehab, but not before spending time in prison for crimes he committed to obtain money to fund his addictions.

Fortunately, these days he's in a better place. Although he knows he will remain at risk of a relapse, he has been in abstinence-based recovery for more than eight years.

His experiences have left him with a desire and the knowledge to help others along the difficult road that he has already travelled.

That's why he set up County Durham-based community interest company Clean and Sober Living, a not-for-profit body that works alongside police, health and housing services to help addicts through the recovery process.

In recent months Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg and Chief Constable Mike Barton have called for a national debate on decriminalising drugs. Today's announcement that small-scale cannabis users and growers will escape prosecution is part of a change in tack within the county which has put it at the forefront of progressive thinking on drugs policy.

However, while this relaxation may have been noted in Westminster, the Government ministers still talk of a “crackdown on drugs” whenever asked to comment on the subject.

Rob says there is merit in both sides of this argument.

"The ambition to cut crime by relaxing the laws surrounding drugs and to treat addictions as health care issue is understandable. So to is continuing to prosecute people for breaking the law.

"You can’t argue with the fact that decriminalising drugs would cut crime. Conversely, alcohol is legal yet when it was criminalised through prohibition in the US crime rates soared.

"It’s also just as difficult to argue against the amount of crime associated with drug misuse, and the need to prosecute and imprison offenders."

The drugs counsellor says evidence tells us that punishing people through the current judicial system is costly and simply doesn’t work. However he adds that both arguments fail to consider a basic fact - that people like and enjoy drugs.

"History tells us they always have and probably always will. However, drugs are only simple chemicals, and on their own they don’t cause crime or health problems.

"If they did, then everyone who uses them would surely experience the same difficulties. And what about alcohol and tobacco? These are legal drugs, and the people who use them problematically create more damage to society than those who use illegal ones.

Rob asks how how the Governments can explain the crackdown on illegal drugs and its support for of legal ones.

"And more controversially, how do we justify the issue of prosecuting people with drug addictions and putting them in prison, while we refer smoking addicts and alcoholics to the hospital?

"As a society, are we saying that we will treat addiction as a health care problem and provide hospitalisation and comfort and care as long as the law isn’t broken otherwise we will dole out punishment?"

Ron says he believes the political and judicial system is treating addictions and addicted people in relation to the legal framework surrounding the drug they use.

"In my experience, addiction has very little to do with the drug. This destructive behaviour, whether it’s connected to tobacco, alcohol, or heroin or cocaine, can always be attributed to individuals who are suffering or feel deprived in some other way. The drug just relives their discomfort."

Asked to comment on Mr Hog's latest declaration on drugs, Rob declines saying the debate surrounding the legal status of particular types of drugs creates news, campaign fodder and hot political debates, but it doesn’t address the real issue.

"If I could change the question, I would ask why do so many people in our society use legal or illegal drugs is such a problematic way, especially when we live in one of the most privileged and affluent countries in the world?"

It's a very good question, although one that probably will never be answered by law makers and law enforcers.