Side Event: Police statement of support for drug policy reform

Organized by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health.

Ron Hogg – Police, Crime and Victims Commissioner, Durham, England

Prohibition simply does not work. Harm caused by illicit drugs has increased, violence associated with drugs market increased. UK government researched approach to drugs – found no correlation between police activity and drugs availability. Criminal justice approaches are not the solution. Severity of punishment does not correlate either. We are seeking to call for decriminalisation. Harm reduction – level of drug reduced deaths is twice as high as Euro average. Just deaths – not including BBVs. Heart of my local policy is harm prevention. I support drug testing in the streets, so we can advise individuals. Holland has done drug testing for 25 years with no deaths. Aiming to implement naloxone provision by police officers. 2011 – Portugal decriminalised drug use. Our death rate is 27x higher than Portugal. As a police officer – I remember finding dead bodies and having to tell families. This problem is very real, politicians need to know this. We are starting to get support for Checkpoint initiative. We know our current policies cause more harm than good. Prisons are full of drugs in the first place. 115 people have gone through new program, only 8 have reoffended. At the heart of all of this – it’s health solutions before criminal justice ones. We’re apparently happy to keep people abusing alcohol and tobacco, yet we’re so closed on illicit drug issues. Our government sees no benefit from cannabis for medical issues. We are now looking at HAT, if we want to reduce crime, we can do it from here. We’ve visited Switzerland to review their program. Regulation can take many different forms – the only ones regulating drugs in the UK at the moment are organised crime groups – this is not right and prohibition has failed. Police forces across the world need to unite on this issue. Legal regulation protects health and users need to be aware of what they’re taking.

Neil Woods – LEAP UK

This statement complied by police all over the world, and LEAP and CLEPH:

‘We, the undersigned, agree that the current policy approach towards illicit drugs has not achieved the desired outcomes, and that new ways to manage this problem must be discussed, developed and adopted.

We, the undersigned, do not believe that drugs are illegal because they are inherently dangerous. Nor do we believe that there will ever be such a thing as a ‘drug free world’.

As police officers and other law enforcement personnel, we acknowledge that the use of drugs can be both risky and harmful. Daily we see the negative impacts and consequences of problematic drug use, just as we do alcohol misuse and other related problems.

 People who use drugs are particularly vulnerable to a wide range of physical, social and emotional harms – including physical and mental illness, overdose, blood-borne viruses, accidents and injuries, unemployment, criminal records, incarceration, harassment, discrimination, and violence. Many are unable to gain access to health, social and welfare programs.

We believe that questions need to be asked about a drug control system that continues to pit police against some of the most vulnerable members of our society. The global drug treaties were never intended to be an exercise in capturing people who use drugs and commit no other crimes. Over decades, we have seen police, customs and border patrol agents seize hundreds of tons of illicit drugs, yet these seizures make little difference to the price or availability of illicit drugs around the world. For every drug dealer that’s arrested, two or more will take their place and, in many cases, violence increases.

We call for an immediate end to arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killings, the death penalty, torture and ill-treatment and other human rights abuses committed by some governments in the name of the “war on drugs”.

In the place of a “war on drugs”, we call for more humane drug policies that are developed with the local contexts in mind and after due consideration by the relevant authorities and affected populations. Such new policies would reduce risks, provide more humane responses, and lead to better health outcomes for the whole community – and they include:

  1. Harm Reduction: policies and programmes that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of drugs, especially for people unable or unwilling to stop. These include needle and syringe programmes, drug consumption rooms, outreach, drug checking and pill testing, and the prescribing of pharmaceutical substitutes for street drugs. These evidence-based programmes provide people who use drugs with health and social support, as well as a bridge into drug treatment, housing and employment.
  2. Decriminalisation: the policy of removing criminal penalties for minor drug offences, such as the possession and use of illicit substances to reduce the harms experienced by those on the demand side. The offences remain prohibited, but are dealt with through administrative penalties or, ideally, through no sanctions at all.
  3. Legal Regulation: the process whereby drugs are no longer illegal. Instead, manufacture, production, sale, distribution and marketing is strictly regulated by the government and delivered by private or public enterprises rather than criminal groups. Regulated markets may take many different forms, dependent on the substance in question – from controlled sale, production and consumption such as for alcohol and tobacco, to more restrictive prescription-only models. Yet, across all models, the regulated and controlled availability of drugs will significantly shrink the existing black market thereby reducing corruption, economic costs and health harms associated with the current unregulated market.’

I’ll just a few details for context – police are really good at catching drug dealers. If you gave them more funding, they’ll catch more. But if you catch a drug dealer, you do not reduce crime – you increase it. It means that someone else will just supply it. The gap that the seizure creates just creates an opportunity for more crime. There are 9 principles of policing – #9 ‘test of police efficiency is absence of crime and disorder’ – so clearly arresting people and creating more gaps does not address this principle. Any arrest and success assures public that the police are doing their job – but they are not reducing crime. Large cocaine seizures imply that the community is made safer – this is not honest or true – we know that this creates more opportunities. It’s not police though, it’s politicians that can bridge this gap. Our movement will grow rapidly – politicians have given us this task, and the task is growing rapidly.

An old uncover job I did – something told me that a police officer I met was wrong – was not happy that this guy knew what I was doing. Anyway, it was an unusually successful job, 60 arrested.  It turned out we were both ‘spies’ in alternate jobs. He was paid to join the police and got paid on top of his police wage. There was no justification for this – the higher level police told me that this corruption was inevitable. Its because by policing drugs, we keep the top gangsters really happy – we thin out completion for them. We create the problem – very clear cause and effect here.

Suzanne Sharkey – LEAP UK, Recovering Justice

10 years ago I tried to kill myself again – work up in hospital. Had children, working as an undercover police officer – so why did I want to kill myself? I’d started using drugs and alcohol to numb my pain. Today I’m 10 years in recovery from drugs and alcohol. It was only then that I stated questioning whether my police role was making the world a better place – absolutely not. Through my own use, I started becoming arrested and became one of the people I had been arrested. Many of the people I had arrested didn’t need to be – they needed support and access to health services. Today as a woman in recovery I advocate for drug reform – harm reduction, decriminalisation, legalisation. I’m grateful to be here today – today I want to live. But I’m tired of the stigmatisation. Tired of lack of access to treatment and harm reduction in UK. Every year people trying to access recovery in the UK die.

Peter Muyshondt – police officer – Anyone’s Child

I’m here for a reason – my brother started using drugs when he was 14. We had opportunities as a family, and now realise it can happen to anybody. We were convinced that maybe justice could help my brother get back on track. It took my brother to die for us to realise that this would not be the solution. Economics of policing – I’m accountable to 5 seniors – need to give justification to every expense I make. In a time of fiscal challenges – we share a common goal – need to ensure effective policing. For every dealer we arrest, 3 others will fill the gap. Every year annual WDR shows increasing figures. As an acting serving police officer, we know the law is the law. Once it effects you personally, it changes – It’s not just a job. Negative effects of prohibition on public health – by speaking out, I have not been punished. Main arguments people use against me is something for politics. We have to stick to enforcing the law. I have lost somebody – nobody can blame me for speaking out about this. The times are changing – lots of officers are starting to express feelings and doubts. Having an opinion does not mean you’re not doing your job. This does not mean we support drug use –we need to take the drug markets out of the hands of criminals.

Q: Impact of possible change to drug policy in Europe?

A: There is a lot of political discussion across England and Wales. There’s a real drive for it and were disappointed by the decision made by the home secretary.

Q: Matt Southwell – thank you for speaking out about this. Partnerships with user groups – how can we work together and better in a progressive way?

A: INPUD growing at same time as network of police – what you say is very important. It is key to work together on local initiatives, we are very keen to work together.

A: We also work with people in recovery community.

Matt: Yes, they are a subset of using community, but people still using drugs are integral and create peer-to-peer interventions and secondary NSPs among other things.

Q: Often hear from junior officers that they are obligated to arrest people, and not exercise discretion. What is the appropriate way to deal with this?

A: The actions of police officers is discretionary – using discretion is key. We can’t say that every officer follows this – but it is the way forward. They need encouragement from above.

Q: Comment on text in statement

Q: I’m a serving officer from Mauritius – thank you for being so brave. My personal opinion is that we need a balanced integrated strategy which involves le and other groups. We can address drug issue from all angels. Law enforcement is as important as other groups including harm and demand reduction. One statement you made re seeing more drugs more profits can be seen the other way around – if there was no law enforcement, there could have been more problems. In Mauritius we are heading towards having everyone on board. Statement on discretion – unlikely to be used in Mauritius.

Q: There are lots of uses of drugs – problem is there are lots of definitions of drugs across countries – classified differently. What’s the efficient solution?

A: We need to acknowledge that all drugs can be harmful. We need to look at how we work together to reduce this harm – drug free world is not possible. Open and honest debate is necessary, we can significantly reduce the harm.

A: Decriminalisation needs to happen for all drugs.

Q: Social worker from Austria – used to use heroin, now psychotherapist. Lots of people who used to use drugs that just cannot express ourselves publicly. Austria now has very low death rates. Therapy instead of punishment is national strategy.

A: Lots of talk on problematic drug use – important to make clear that 90% of drug use is not problematic. We have to go with the evidence, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable.

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