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 Chief Constable: “We’re not going soft on drugs, we’re going sensible"


​LAST weekend’s Mail on Sunday criticised Durham Constabulary over our policy on possession of cannabis. In an open letter to the newspaper, Chief Constable Mike Barton replies that what is needed is a sensible approach to drugs. 
If you read the HMIC Inspections of Durham Constabulary over the last three years, you will see those independent reviews of our work have graded us as outstanding in the way that we tackle serious and organised crime. The backbone of serious and organised crime in the UK is the criminal and industrial distribution and supply of class A drugs, principally heroin and cocaine.
We tackle serious and organised crime and the distribution of drugs in a number of ways, but one of them is to attack the open drug market. An open drugs market is where unreferenced prospective purchasers can walk into any street or community and buy drugs, pretty much straight away. Every day in Durham, I have undercover cops posing as drug takers to entrap the dealers.
HMIC, as well as others who have taken the time and trouble to come and look at us, say we are doing a half decent job.  I suppose the bigger philosophical question is, are we having any impact with all this hard work?  This is where my optimism evaporates.
I joined policing in 1980. Since then I have devoted my entire professional life to tackling the scourge of drug distribution and drug addiction in the UK. Drugs are now stronger, cheaper, more freely available and more dangerous than they ever have been. Einstein defined stupidity as doing what you have always done and expecting a different result.
Since 2010 I have lost over 30% of my budget. Durham Constabulary used to have over 1,700 police officers, it can now only afford 1,180.  I have the doubtful privilege of having more registered heroin addicts in the county than police officers.
I agree with pretty much everything in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday’s leader column. I was inspired by your article to research all the current active targets for Durham Constabulary: those people who are committing the most crime today and need to be arrested by tomorrow. There are 42 of these most wanted in Durham at the minute.  Of those, 35 are known to be drug addicts or stealing to buy drugs and/or alcohol. The other 7 are a mixture of domestic violence offenders and sexual offenders, who may or may not be taking drugs, but we have no intelligence to say they are.  I recognise, or more importantly my staff recognise, that class A drugs drive our activity before 8 o’clock and thereafter the problems associated with alcohol kick in. Both are driving mental ill-health, which has risen exponentially in terms of threat since 2010.
You would wish us, if I understand you correctly, to arrest anyone and everyone who is taking illegal drugs.  You would have to increase my budget tenfold to do that.  Unlike many national politicians and commentators who admit to having taken illegal drugs, I never have. I, unlike others, work with my staff at the cutting edge of the impact of drugs on the streets of the UK.  Anyone who is seen by a police officer to be smoking a spliff anywhere in Durham will be arrested. We recognise that allowing people to openly commit offences is not conducive to a law-abiding society and the public good.  My Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner, Ron Hogg, has said that we will not actively target individuals who may be smoking pot at home, or are cultivating a plant for their own use.  He has made public his support in the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.  In line with that policy I do not expect my staff to apply for search warrants should they learn there is a single cannabis plant in a house. If there is a commercial cannabis grow, then we will act and act promptly.
All I want to see in terms of drugs is a debate and not closed minds, but the one thing I do advocate is that heroin assisted treatment is effective and I am pleased to see Nice guidelines now recommend that.
I know we disagree on the power of diversion schemes with offenders, I will allow the independent academic research on the effectiveness of Checkpoint to speak for itself.  Checkpoint works, it reduces reoffending, but we’ve had to arrest those people to bring about that change.
We are not going soft on drugs, we are going sensible.
Mike Barton