Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jan 2002
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.


PEOPLE caught using cocaine, heroin and ecstasy will not face court action 
under sweeping changes to drugs policies that are being considered 
by  police chiefs.

Under the proposals, thousands of users who are arrested in possession of 
small amounts of hard as well as soft drugs will be referred for medical 
treatment rather than face criminal charges. The change is expected to be 
approved within the next few weeks.

Chief constables insist they are not decriminalising hard drugs and 
emphasise that police will retain the option of pressing charges. But 
addicts and recreational users, although not drug dealers, will no longer 
be treated automatically as criminals if they agree to register for 
treatment, which could involve drugs prescribed under supervision.

The proposed "intelligent enforcement" policy was outlined at a meeting of 
the "cabinet" of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which 
comprises the 43 chief constables of England and Wales, at a meeting in 
London on December 19. Police chiefs say the aim is to focus resources on 
hard drug dealers.

They believe that "medicalising" instead of "criminalising" the problem is 
the only way to cut the number of hard drug users and the 80% of property 
crime that is drug-related. One chief constable said: "We want to refer 
people for treatment rather than charge them, to concentrate on damage 
limitation and break the cycle between drug use and crime."

Although more than 11,300 people were prosecuted for possessing hard drugs 
in 2000, many senior officers privately accept that the war on drugs is 
being lost. Chief constables feel that sending offenders to prison does 
nothing to help them to kick their habits.

At the same time senior officers want more and tougher targeting of street 
dealers who are supplying class A drugs such as ecstasy, heroin and 
cocaine.They say the policy switch will not require any new legislation, 
only changes in the way the police enforce existing laws.

Pilot schemes under which arrested drug users are referred to counsellors 
and doctors for treatment are already running in some areas. ACPO wants to 
study ways of greatly increasing their use. Home Office figures show that 
60% of those referred for treatment reduced or stopped their offending.

One government study indicated that for every UKP 1 spent on drugs 
treatment, UKP 3 was saved on keeping offenders out of the police and 
courts system. The Home Office says the cost of dealing with drugs offences 
in terms of police and court time is UKP 1.2 billion a year.

Britain has the worst drugs problem in western Europe. Figures produced 
last September indicate that more than 3m people spend a total of UKP 6.6 
billion a year on illegal drugs. There are 3.1m occasional smokers of 
cannabis and 270,000 regular heroin users. More than 430,000 are estimated 
to be occasional users of ecstasy.

The Home Office recently announced that funding for drug treatment regimes 
would rise from I234m this year to more than I400m in 2003-04. But the 
police chiefs' proposals would require much more funding.

The ACPO move follows a proposal by David Blunkett, the home secretary, to 
reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, effectively making 
possession of small quantities a non-arrestable offence.
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