POLICE and Crime commissioner Vera Baird QC is to be applauded for her measured and sensible approach to balancing the contentions stemming from a reduced policing budget, the needs of a community concerned by criminal activities and a maelstrom of evidence suggesting the current approach to drugs does not work. The former labour minister and the first police and crime commissioner for the Northumbria constabulary has excluded any reference to dealing with low level drug users from her office’s new policing plan.
The reason given was that ‘combatting low-level drug use would mean taking officers off the street’.
Recently at a meeting of the local police and crime panel, Mrs Baird’s deputy, Mark Dennett was asked why the policing plan made no mention of drugs.
He said: “Drugs is an issue and will continue to be something we tackle at the highest level, but the vast majority of our drug seizures are people who are brought into the station for a different reason and have drugs on them when we search them.
“If I put drugs in the plan, there is a danger that beat police officers will not be on the streets in your neighbourhoods.”
Last year Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK and other drug policy reform campaigns called on their membership and supporters to lobby their commissioners to take a more pragmatic approach to drug policing. In Northumbria, we are witnessing a rare example of bold political honesty on the drugs issue in the UK. Did you hear that? A politician is making a bold move on drug use, and in the UK of all places…
While this currently only applies to the Northumbria Constabulary and doesn’t mean decriminalisation is nigh, it is right that drug policy reformers should express their support for the commissioner on this issue. And if you live in England or Wales, communicate with their own commissioner why they support this policy.
Queue the predictable hysterical response from papers who have made it their vocation to be our nation’s morality police. The Daily Mail choosing to make an ad hominem attack on the commissioner, for allegedly once refusing to clear up after her dog that had fouled on the pavement. I’ll let you make up your mind on what sort of analogy this paper is trying to make.
Critics of drug policy reform tend to talk up the scourge of drug related crime while downplaying the fact that it is our very prohibitionist policies that fund these crime networks in the first place. In the meanwhile, people who use drugs, the very individuals that are supposed to be protected by these sentiments often face the risk of permanent criminal records which can remain with that person for life. This can affect their job prospects, career, health and potentially even ability to travel.
While some may argue that this is a fair response to those who break the laws of the land, there is a lack of equity in the application of the law. Certain groups are just much more likely to be convicted of low level drug offences, i.e. young non-white males. While others, including some members of the House of Commons, are just more likely to get away with their youthful indiscretions.
I’m going to just throw this out into the open here; other than through its definition, is drug use really a criminal activity? Some argue that as the consumer has to acquire their drugs in the underground market, they are contributing to the criminal networks that drug policy reformers seek to diffuse through regulated production and distribution. While there is some validity to this argument, it breaks down where it begins. Low level users and even ‘dealers’ can include people with addictions, perhaps the most vulnerable group and intended beneficiary of any compassionate health based drug policy. Or perhaps it includes the terminally ill patient who grows their own cannabis at home.
How do you prove the possession of that drug is somehow linked to organised crime? I propose that the bulk of incoherency around our drug policies arises from a lack of creativity, treating all drugs and their consumption like some homogenous and villainous enterprise.
We are still some way from a more balanced approach to drug use in society, nonetheless this is exactly the opening we have been looking for.
Vera, I may not agree with all of your policies but don’t give into your detractors and the fear mongers on this one. You may not have the authority to experiment with alternative drug policies, but it is right and proper that you do not waste police resources on low level drug offences when there are bigger fish to catch.
If you agree with the sentiments of this article, contact your Police and Crime Commissioner and tell them why you think low level drug use shouldn’t be a priority for the police.