Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Brian Rowland


  I submit this Memorandum to the Select Committee against a background as a retired police officer who served for 30 years and has been interested in all aspects of the criminal law touching on police duty for over half a century. From 1969 to 1977 I was Secretary of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales and was awarded the Queen's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in the 1977 Birthday Honours List.

  I have not been made aware of any terms of reference that might have been issued and submit this Memorandum solely on the basis of my personal knowledge and opinions.

  I would first of all pose two questions on the work that is to be undertaken. The first is, are only drugs that come under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and any allied primary and delegated legislation to be reviewed by the Committee and the second is, exactly what is meant by decriminalisation?

  I pose the first question because of my concern about the effects alcohol has on the community which, I would submit, renders it far more dangerous than drugs covered by the 1971 legislation. Something like 20,000 to 30,000 deaths occur annually from the effects of alcohol which contrasts quite sharply against the figures of fatalities arising from drug misuse which seem to amount to something like 1,000. As far as I can establish the figures of deaths from both substances are not known for their degree of accuracy, so I therefore think it essential that the Select Committee take steps to find out the precise extent of the fatalities they cause and include the problems associated with alcohol into their deliberations. It should also bear in mind the effect alcohol has in matters such as child abuse, violent crime and road casualties. An added factor is that alcohol and drugs are frequently used together but somehow seem to become detached by the police who are prone to deal with such matters as solely drug-related. This factor, together with diversionary arrangements that have been developed in recent years to keep habitual excess alcohol users away from the criminal courts, has failed to take account of the damage such individuals do to society. One hears much about the fear of crime but to an elderly person or a young child a lurching drunken, often foul mouthed, person under the influence of drink is a very frightening experience. I would therefore urge the Committee to treat alcohol as a drug and examine the effect it might have if the more generally accepted drugs were decriminalised. I would also submit that the majority of drug issues are linked directly with alcohol abuse. The latter has somehow become lost in the welter of information that is accorded to drugs and it is to be deplored.

  I now turn to the second question I posed, namely what exactly is meant by decriminalisation? This word in relation to drugs first began to feature in any meaningful form in the mid-1970s and for a great many years appeared to relate to Cannabis. More recently one has seen the first suggestions that hard drugs might follow a similar path. No doubt the Committee will be looking at those issues. In this regard there would appear to be a great dearth of information about the numbers of people using drugs of all kinds. If that were not enough there are two other issues that the Committee might wish to examine, quite apart from alcohol that I have already mentioned. The first concerns the introduction of new drugs onto the market. Progress in the pharmaceutical industry has of necessity to be commercially sensitive and it is only when an illegal off prescription market opens up for such substances, or the police become aware through their immediate contact at such places as public houses or night clubs, that authority is alerted. There then appears to follow an interminable delay before secondary legislation is produced to close the gap. Government must act more quickly when such circumstances come to light but should also have a permanent body in being whose task should be to thoroughly examine all possible uses to which a new drug might be put. If drug users can ascertain such use, it should not be beyond the wit of scientists and other suitably trained people to forestall the practices which I believe exist. The second factor I would wish to draw to the attention of the Committee is the manner in which drug users are all lumped together as a mass of common law breakers, whereas the reality is far different. It is true the law does categorise drugs into classes, but very little is done to categorise users. There seems no doubt that were this given greater priority by investigators the detection of offenders would be much enhanced. Let me, at this stage briefly illustrate my point, which I will enlarge on later in this Memorandum. As you will be aware, Heroin and Cocaine are both Class A drugs, but generally speaking the first named is largely used by the less intelligent members other community, whereas the latter is much more likely to be the preferred choice of the better educated. If this is accepted than all sorts of issues can be deduced. Heroin users are more likely to be unemployed or in casual employment, often flitting from one place of residence to another and generally live a totally disorganised life. They are consequently required to commit crime to fuel their habit, although again this is an issue that I will also refer later, whereas Cocaine users will often be holding down responsible jobs commanding high salaries. This difference does not seem to have been recognised by the police who are content to lump all drug users together and as a result a canteen culture has grown up which has distorted the picture. Examples of this are the acceptance of the "gateway" principle that suggests that the taking of Cannabis virtually automatically leads on to the taking of hard drugs and the wildly exaggerated figures that are put about regarding the use of hard drugs. At a time when the police are endeavouring to reduce the fear of crime they, at the same time suggest that heroin, in particular, is a major killer. The fact is that deaths resulting from drugs are about one third of the road casualties in this country. This is not to say that I approve of drugs, but merely to suggest that they are a problem that needs to be kept in perspective. Again the police are not consistent in their attitude to drugs. I have seen quotes from police officers that a heroin addict needs an annual income of up to £30,000 to feed his habit but they then mention hauls of relatively low figures in the local press as major successes. They also link drugs with crime for the same reason and this is true to a limited extent, but without doubt the major reason for committing crime to feed a habit is that associated with the use of alcohol. In my experience property crime is rarely committed without the perpetrator being fortified by an intake of alcohol. It is surely not without significance that thefts from supermarkets are very often centred around the alcohol shelves. Again it is my experience that those persons who use drugs for non-recreational reasons are also heavy users of alcohol. In addition one may wonder why, if drugs are such a massive problem when it comes to the commission of property crime, that so few accused persons are charged with burglary and drugs possession offences. There are also other issues that the Committee might like to examine as to how much drug usage is linked with the commission of crime. I say this because a substantial proportion of crimes is committed by the young, indeed the very young, and yet one does not hear of school authorities reporting a major problem so far as drug abuse by the pupils is concerned.

  If drugs are not as big a problem, as I have suggested, it might properly be asked why do the police make such accusations as I have mentioned in the previous paragraphs. I would suggest that the main reason is that membership of a drugs squad is seen within police circles, and indeed among the general public, as a form of elite policing. Until quite recently offences involving Cannabis were a massive proportion of all drug offences brought before the courts, the vast majority for possessing minute quantities. Indeed the numbers of offences involving all other kinds of drugs were just a fraction of those related to Cannabis. Even with recent changes in attitudes relating to that drug the position has not altered to any great degree. I am of the view that this situation has been allowed to continue through lack of good management. Police resources have been committed largely because of the "canteen culture" that has grown up around the drug menace, rather than any determination of the extent of the problem. In other words without hard evidence, I would, in support of this argument, make the point that not even the Drugs Czar was able to obtain any useful information on the number of persons using the various drugs, largely I would submit for two reasons. Firstly the amount and type of drug available in the country cannot be accurately defined. That they are on the increase is not in doubt because seizures virtually consistently show an upward trend, but to establish precise quantities is just not possible. Secondly, and the Committee might feel it is linked to the first, is that the information supplied by the police is, to a large extent, based on the amounts of drugs that come into their hands following the detection of property crime. If one accepts that the police base their opinions on this premise it must also be borne in mind that detection rates for such offences are extremely low, barely reaching double figures in some cases and virtually never achieving 25 per cent. It follows that even given the most favourable circumstances, the police have no hard evidence about whether or not the other 75 per cent minimum are drug-related. Some undoubtedly are and even if the seizures of designer drug offences, not usually associated with property crime because the figures of the latter offences are quite small in comparison, are added, I would suggest they do not make any significant difference. There is a real need to attempt some extent of the whole drug problem by assessing the divisions between the various users, the type of drugs used and a collation of estimates provided by the various bodies associated with drugs. Until this is done I would submit the Committee is going to be hampered in coming to any rational judgement about decriminalisation.

  I now turn to the issues the Committee might like to consider regarding the problems it is, in my view, going to encounter in collecting the data that I referred to in the previous paragraph.

  I have lost count of the bodies involved in dealing with the drug issue. The police and H.M. Customs are obviously the main enforcement bodies, who, it is generally accepted, only touch the tip of an iceberg. The steady increase in all aspects of drug matters dealt with by those two bodies are proof that such is the case. However, it is when other aspects relating to endeavours to alleviate drug abuse are considered, that one finds what I can only describe as a complicated mess. Many public services are involved, such as Hospital and Mental Health Trusts and local authorities and the private sector involve many charitable organisations, some, no doubt, funded in part from public funds. One can only guess who co-ordinates all of these groups. From my study in this area I suspect it is very much a hit or miss affair. More importantly all these disparate bodies must have leaders, administrative officers and accommodation, which must make for the wasteful expenditure of both public and private funds as well as money donated to charitable causes. I will now list two examples that I have discovered in recent times. On 7th July 1999 two advertisements for Drug Workers in Worcester appeared in The Guardian. The first was inserted by the Worcestershire Community Healthcare and the second by Turning Point, which I understand is a charitable organisation based in Nottinghamshire. I wrote to both regarding this duplication inviting an explanation. Not being satisfied by the response I then wrote to Keith Helliwell about the matter who, having contacted the Worcester DAT Co-ordinator, thus bringing a third component into the equation, seemed satisfied that the two groups were operating satisfactorily. Then on 26 May 2001 two advertisements were placed on the same page of The Guardian for a Drug Training Co-ordinator, ostensibly by the West Mercia Constabulary. The wording on the other hand to describe the post, appeared to have come from the West Mercia Drugs Net, a partnership comprising the West Mercia Police, Drug Action Teams and the Drugs Prevention Advisory Service. It is important to note that the advertisement mentioned the fact that the partnership had recently been awarded approximately £500,000, presumably from public funds. I mention this point because of the duplication factor. The two advertisements were identical save for two matters. The first being that the type style differed and the second related to a reference showing H05/07 in one advertisement and H05/09 in the other. One can only wonder why these two advertisements were placed, bearing in mind the cost factor and I incline to the view that there was a lapse of co-ordination between the various bodies within the partnership that allowed them to be separately placed without, it must be assumed, prior consultation. The cases I have highlighted indicate that there seems to be a clear need to bring all agencies connected with drug matters under a single head.

  I next turn to the need to deal with the referral of those who require help in dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. At the moment the number of places available for treatment within the National Health Service appears to be dismally small and again I understand that charities assist to some degree. If you find that decriminalisation is a viable proposition, treatment for both drug and alcohol abuse has to be available, albeit that the failure rate might be high, and such treatment facilities should be brought under the single head I have mentioned above.

  Finally I will deal with the matter of drugs raids by police. It is the custom to carry out such raids at dawn, with the media often being in attendance. The exception is when premises are occupied by high profile persons. Such dawn raids are almost always executed by smashing down doors with purpose made tools that enable a quick entry to be effective. The reason for such entry is alleged to be to prevent drugs being hastily flushed down a convenient toilet to destroy the evidence. The facts are that such people, particularly heroin users, live in squalid premises and during the early hours are almost always suffering the effects of alcohol. I would therefore submit that in the vast majority of raids such breaking down of doors, thus creating damage, is unnecessary and that the desired result could be achieved without the need for such drastic action. I would therefore submit that when premises are the subject of a raid, violent entry should only be carried out where there are very good reasons for such action and that where that is thought necessary, the reasons should stated on the application for the warrant.

September 2001

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