Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jun 2011
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Daniel Boffey


Green MP Says the Coalition's 'Localism' Policy Enables Seaside Town
to Follow Portugal's Decriminalisation Strategy

Over the past 20 years or so, Brighton has gained an enviable
reputation for being cool. Its thriving centre plays host to a young
population and the town is one of the most gay-friendly in Europe.

But Brighton also has a drugs problem: there was an average of almost
one drug-related death every week -- 50 in total -- in 2009, and last
year around 35 deaths were attributed to drugs. Brighton is the drug
death capital of the UK, with the highest mortality rate from drugs
per capita.

The situation is not expected to improve soon. "There was a bad crop
in Afghanistan last year, which meant the heroin being taken recently
was of very bad quality. A lot of the time it will have been dust",
said Mike Pattinson, the director of operations for CRI, a charity
rehabilitating drug users in the city. "But we hear this year's crop
is a bumper one, which means the quality will be much higher and
people will overdose. They won't cope with the strength of what they
are taking."

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, has called for a new
approach, having identified an unlikely ally. She wants to exploit the
localism agenda of communities secretary Eric Pickles, the no-nonsense
cabinet bruiser from Bradford, to decriminalise drug use in the city.

If Lucas, the first Green MP in England, gets her way, a town which
has gained a reputation as one of the most tolerant in the country
will become a pioneer in liberal drugs policy as well.

She claims the government's localism strategy echoes, at least on the
surface, the Global Commission on Drugs Policy's recent recommendation
that local administrations be allowed to develop their own approaches,
if there are grounds to believe these will deliver improved health or
social outcomes.

If her argument is accepted, Brighton will attempt to amend the laws
on drugs and criminality for a trial period.

Her plan, she insists, does not stem from a desire to foster the
cannabis cafe culture of Amsterdam on the south coast, but because the
death toll demands a rethink. "The current free-for-all in which
anyone can manufacture, sell or get hold of drugs needs to end --
through proper regulation, strict controls on who can buy what and
when, and ending the criminal control of drug markets," Lucas recently
said in a speech to health workers.

"I think somewhere like Brighton should be able to say our experience
shows that prohibition and abstinence don't work -- and we want to try
something different."

Strikingly, Lucas has the measured support of the senior police
officer in this most cosmopolitan of cities. Chief Inspector Graham
Bartlett knows he is on perilous ground, but his 22 years working with
drug users has persuaded him that now is the time for change.

"It is important to say first of all that what I am expressing is a
personal view and my officers will enforce the law as it stands,"
Bartlett told the Observer. "But we have drugs usage which is worse
than Liverpool and parts of London, and though drug addiction is
properly regarded in the country as a physiological addiction we deal
with it as a crime. The people who manufacture drugs and supply them
should be jailed, but the people that use them need treatment."

Bartlett said people would feel less at risk of criminal records and
criminal convictions -- and therefore more willing to seek treatment.

Ten years ago Portugal abolished criminal penalties for possession of
drugs. Instead those caught with drugs for personal use are sent to
so-called "dissuasion boards" consisting of social workers and
psychologists who question users on their drug habit and have the
power to impose fines or recommend treatment.

Users caught with drugs more than once are ordered to appear at police
stations or a doctor's surgery.

The result, according to a study, is that drug use among teens in
Portugal has declined, rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing
of dirty needles have dropped, while the number of people seeking
treatment for drug addiction has more than doubled

Such an approach would not be entirely alien to the south coast of
England. While the death rate may be high in Brighton, Pattinson and
his team at the CRI are proud of what they have achieved recently in
preventing worse.

The charity runs a needle exchange and drop-in centre a short stroll
from the front by Victoria Gardens, one of the city's most popular
parks. There is no sign on the navy blue shop front and the lightly
frosted glass prevents those passing by from peering in. But inside it
is bright and airy. And what they do here is to treat those coming for
help -- be it a clean needle, advice or therapy -- as clients, not as

"We want to be a friendly face," said the centre's manager. "We
probably get 30 people coming through our door every day and we try to
help. If it is a matter of swapping needles, then we are at least in
contact and we can build relationships and offer advice."

There are more than 700 registered needle exchange users and the
service distributed 195,000 needles last year with a 99% return rate.

But crucially there were also 1,140 people in treatment -- of whom 383
were new, while 144 of them left the service drug free.

Meanwhile, CRI works with Bartlett on Operation Reduction which has
seen the charity focus on "user dealers" on the streets, while the
police seek to cut off supply. It has had impressive results.

Pattinson said: "It is no good arresting street level dealers and
putting them in prison for three or four weeks because it is such a
lucrative market; there are so many vulnerable people you just get
more taking their place.

"Caroline Lucas is pushing at an open door here. She wants
evidence-based policy, and we simply say it would be madness to have
anything other than policy based on evidence." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.