Slowly but surely, more law enforcement officials than ever before in the United Kingdom are indicating their intention to cease most cannabis-related prosecutions. Having (finally) acknowledged the fact that pursuing cannabis-convictions represents an extraordinary waste of time, money and essential resources, fewer cannabis crimes than ever before are being brought before British courts.
However, one prominent police chief has taken things a significant step further, by declaring that his force is to stop prosecuting drug addicts across the board. What’s more, dealers of heroin and cocaine operating at a ‘low-level’ will also fall completely off the force’s radar.
Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton recently spoke with reporters from The Mail on Sunday, confirming that his force will become the first in the UK to turn a blind eye to dealers. Dealing cocaine or heroin at any level typically attaches prosecution and an 18-month prison sentence as an absolute minimum.
Far from a radical and untested concept however, the decision follows a 24-month trial geared towards helping and supporting drug addicts, rather than furthering their problems with criminal records and prison sentences. Instead of going to jail, those deemed to be in a vulnerable position are able to sign up for a four-month programme, which seeks to address problems with their lifestyles and their health.
The scheme is now to be expanded significantly, in order to cover those dealing ecstasy, cocaine and heroin at a lower level, along with anyone found to be cultivating cannabis.
‘From next month, anyone caught in possession of any drugs will go on Checkpoint,’ he said.
‘If they agree, they will not face prosecution or go to court,’
‘If they are selling heroin to feed their habit, we do not want to send them to prison,’
‘They are technically dealers but if they are sad people rather than bad, we want to stop their addiction. Then we can focus on the really bad people.’
Barton, like many senior police officers in Great Britain, believes that those who are currently selling drugs in small quantities simply to fund their own habits should be provided with help, rather than criminal convictions. He stated that when addicts are prosecuted – regardless of which drugs they are using or dealing – sending them to court and pursuing prosecutions has no effect whatsoever on the likelihood of reoffending.
‘What’s the point in an addict going to court and getting a £50 fine? If they pay it at all, they will only steal or sell five bags of heroin to fund it. How does that help us?’ said Mr Barton.
A common-sense approach to a national crisis with the potential to make an immediate and on-going difference in the lives of those most affected by drug addiction. However, critics have hit back at the idea, suggesting that punishments should continue to be enforced – regardless of the personal situation or circumstances of the dealer in question.
‘This is absolutely wrong. If you are an active drug dealer, you are dealing in death,’ said Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, a former teacher who founded the charity DrugFam.
‘What kind of message does this send young people when they are in that reckless, experimental phase? There must be some kind of punishment.’
Nevertheless, advocates continue to stress the fact that addiction – having been officially accepted as a disease like any other – deserves to be approached and handled like a disease. Rather than prosecuting those who are struggling to cope with their addictions, it simply makes sense to provide them with the help they need.
What’s important to remember is that the scheme outlined by Mr Barton does not apply to higher-level drug dealers who are simply out to make money at the expense of others. Instead, it applies exclusively to those who have found themselves in something of a dangerous and difficult cycle that needs outside intervention to break.