Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Police commissioner's vision to tackle drugs blight


People realise that it’s a health issue and criminalising drug use is not going to just solve the problem

This article first appeared in Policing Insight:

The sight of drug addicts huddled in the shadows or of streets littered with used syringes is hardly a vision of utopia. After 30 years as a police officer, rising through the ranks to inspector, Arfon Jones, now Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, has plenty of first-hand experience seeing the ravages of drug use on both individuals and local communities.

This experience has fuelled his belief in legalising drugs, though "only if organisations which work with drug users, such as health, are properly funded to help break the cycle, it shouldn’t all be down to the police".

Elected as PCC last year, he has also racked up experience in CID, crime strategy and child protection in the police. He retired in 2008 and was elected as a Plaid Cymru Councillor the same year, serving on the Wrexham branch of the North Wales Community Health Council, so is well-versed in both worlds.

"A lot of politicians want to stay away from the controversial stuff, they just want re-election but I saw this position as a real opportunity to stop and think about what is right, not just what is popular," says the 60-year-old, who advocates heroin ‘fix rooms’ where users can safely inject under medical supervision and where those most vulnerable to dying receive safer ‘prescribed’ medical-grade heroin in Wrexham, aimed at helping to stem a surge in drug-related deaths.

Increase in heroin deaths

The Office of National Statistics figures for the numbers of deaths related to heroin have more than doubled from 579 in 2012 to 1,201 in 2015, driven partly by availability. Users are also getting older and have other conditions including hepatitis and lung disease.

Drug use in Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales, has prompted the county council there to push for a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), meaning anyone drinking, using intoxicating substances and urinating, among other anti-social behaviour can be hit with a £100 fine. This has solved one problem but helped fuel another; Mr Jones says it has pushed drug use out into the surrounding residential area of Rhosddu. Residents are now increasingly concerned about drug use, littering of hypodermic needles, homelessness and anti-social behaviour.

Despite his rapacious cold, Mr Jones, is audibly passionate in his condemnation of targeting and criminalising those such as homeless veterans and drug addicts who have already suffered abuses.

"You have people who have been through abuse, veterans who have fought for our country and ended up homeless so it doesn’t make sense to criminalise them. We should be targeting the organised criminals. I understand how residents feel and this is a way to try to tackle the cause," he tells Policing Insight.

Fix rooms

His solution is to call for fix rooms, providing a safe and hygienic environment, as well as multi-agency services, like health care, housing, counselling and welfare on site to try to get users back on track and out of the criminal justice system.

"The littering of needles would disappear and, instead of treating the symptoms, we would be tackling the cause," says Mr Jones.

Glasgow is already in the throes of operating a similar scheme where addicts can inject under medical supervision, following successful trials in ten European countries, including Australia, France and Switzerland to tackle drug-related deaths.

The commissioner says: "Addicts could go to their GP surgery and take prescribed ‘heroin’ under medical supervision (Heroin-Assisted Treatment or HAT), unlikely to suffer an overdose, they are not committing crime to fund their habit and don’t discard needles in the street."

He adds that "around 200 doctors in the country are already licensed to do this" but that it should be extended.

"You would only need HAT for about ten per cent of users. People who are now in their 50s and have been using since their 20s, they are the ones dying so clearly it should be those people who get that treatment. Other users can be successfully treated by methadone," he says.

Pilot

The commissioner’s next step this year is to seek out meetings with public health officials to set up a pilot of Heroin-Assisted Treatment for the most vulnerable users. He has enlisted advice and help from organisations and experts including charitable think tank, Transform, leading on drugs policy analysis and advocating reform.

Mark Polin, Chief Constable of North Wales Police, may not have been openly supportive of Mr Jones’ stance but sees it as a policy decision and will implement the plan set by the commissioner. However, Mr Jones continues to advocate the position for other PCCs, saying it reduces crime, reduces harm and risk of overdose and improves the public perception as users are not injecting on the streets.

He also supports decriminalisation of drugs where those caught for possession would be given an administrative penalty, he compares to a ‘speed awareness course’. The individual would appear before a panel including representatives from the health and social work sector.

PCC support

He is not alone in his approach, in June last year Ron Hogg, PCC for Durham, spoke out to support decriminalisation saying money would be better spent supporting users to change their lifestyles rather than on criminal prosecution and policing low-level users.

The move to introduce fix rooms in Glasgow was prompted following a swell in the numbers of HIV infections and drug-related deaths by around 15 per cent. Officials painted a similar scene to that in Wrexham with needle littering in public areas. A scheme to set up a fix room needs special approval to ensure it is compliant with the Misuse of Drugs Act (1972) or users could be arrested for using on the premises.

It would be easy to think that public perception of such a move would be negative; however, the plans to try to tackle the issue, even in fairly controversial ways have been met with support in Wales. A poll from news site, WalesOnline, found more than half, 60 per cent who voted, were in favour of the plans for fix rooms.

"I think there is a cultural change around how to treat drugs and users. What’s going on in other countries has changed. People realise that it’s a health issue and criminalising drug use is not going to just solve the problem," says Mr Jones.

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