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Last Updated: Friday, 14 October 2005, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
New way to fight drug crime
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Drug workers speak to suspects in their cells
"Are you sick and tired of feeling sick and tired? Then ask to see a drugs worker," says the legend stencilled on the ceilings of cells at Wembley police station.

Here in the borough of Brent an experiment is under way to see if the problems caused by drugs can be tackled in a new way.

In Wembley offenders who take drugs are not labelled criminals, they are "clients".

There are no drug addicts, only "misusers".

Under a pioneering project, the Deferred Decision Scheme, those caught in possession of class A drugs can be offered a choice between counselling sessions or facing charges.

If they complete four sessions with drug counsellors, they are eligible to receive a caution.

Those who have been convicted of supplying drugs in the past can be excluded from the scheme and are dealt with in the normal way.

'Trigger offences'

Treatment is the order of the day.

Brent is also one of 21 drug intervention boroughs in London, where people charged with "trigger offences" such as burglary, shoplifting or car theft are tested for class A drugs.

Effectively you will have a quicker pathway to services having committed an offence than if you go to your doctor
Inspector Matthew Hearn

If they test positive, magistrates have the option to send them for treatment instead of imprisoning them.

Soon this scheme will be expanded to encompass all those arrested for trigger offences, not just those who are charged.

The scheme's head at Wembley, Inspector Matthew Hearn, wants the public to understand that their mission is to stop crime and help users.

"Incarcerating people will not deal with it. They have to see the bigger picture.

"We are aiming for treatment over punishment to stop the re-offending.

"If you have one less victim as a result of all this work then you have success."

Disputed tests

He freely admits that the scheme has created one curious outcome: "Effectively you will have a quicker pathway to services having committed an offence than if you go to your doctor."

Drug testing kit
Those charged with trigger offences are tested for heroin and cocaine
Suspects often dispute negative drug tests, say police, knowing a positive test will mean they can get treatment and get off more lightly in court.

The drug workers at Wembley Police station group users into four categories, experimental, recreational, regular and problem.

Of the problem users, it is those with chaotic lifestyles who are the key target group.

These users fund their habit through crime and often pass through the gates at Wembley police station.

The drug workers emphasise that many of the people who are addicted to drugs are able to fund their lifestyle through work and loans from family members.

But once they become chaotic users they become a threat to themselves and the community.

Constant arrests

Having little regard for their own safety, and driven by an overwhelming need for a fix, they are not concerned about being caught.

"That's why a lot of them get caught constantly. Getting caught is almost part and parcel of their life," Inspector Hearn notes.

These chaotic users are well known to the small team of drug workers.

We do get a percentage who are your middle class weekend drug users - they could be up in front of magistrates and lose their jobs
Insp Hearn

"Logistically they are amazing. They need to be up, out and earning the money," says drug worker Debbie Birkbeck.

After the user has been assessed by the drug charity that works with Brent police, they can be referred on to other bodies for specialist treatment.

The drugs counselling sessions offered to these users typically comprise four one hour slots.

Even if the addict is not able to cut down their usage, they can be given advice on harm minimisation.

Inspector Hearn says the Deferred Decision Scheme has an impact on all drug users, not just those who are using crime to fund their habit.

Cell visits

"We do get a percentage who are your middle class weekend drug users. They could be up in front of magistrates and lose their jobs. That can have the biggest shock on them."

At the police station, the drugs workers cold call on the cells to see if any suspects - whether they have tested positive or not - want to admit to being users in private and get help.

The station itself is modern, looking more like an FE college than anything. The old station down the road is now an Indian restaurant.

Mouth swab
Some addicts dispute negative tests so they can get treatment

Inside everywhere is miked and every inch covered by CCTV, in part to stop malicious complaints about ill-treatment from prisoners.

Each of the cells is covered by a "wicket", a movable gate through which officers can look.

But a clear plastic cover remains as prisoners in police stations with HIV have been known to bite the inside of their cheeks and try to spit blood in officers' eyes.

Crime reduction

Susan Joseph leads the team of civilian drugs workers and says the work directly helps the non-drug using public.

"If they are committing 3,000 worth of burglaries a week to fund a habit, and the habit is reduced through counselling and treatment, the level of crime will also be reduced.

"Success for some people means getting them to walk through the door and say I'm willing to accept help."

The world of drug treatment seems a labyrinthine array of acronyms, concepts and "partnerships".

But everybody at Wembley police station seems agreed that major steps are being taken in the current experiments to change the way drug addicts are dealt with to the benefit of all.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received:

Not drug addicts but "misusers"?? Rubbish. How possibly can one "misuse" Cocaine or Crack or any other class A drug not professionally prescribed but bought on the street by funds gained by ill gotten means.
Richard K Leah, UK

Very interesting article. Shows that huge reductions in crime can be made when people are willing to put stereotyping and prejudice aside. May I suggest you look at the way drug workers here in Birmingham are used by West Midlands Police. We go one step further, with workers actually being based permanently within police stations, working shifts so that custody suites are covered from 7am to 10:00pm, as part of the government's Drugs Interventions Program
Trevor Whitehead, United Kingdom

Personally my view is that anyone caught on class A drugs should be given the choice of prison or to get help. If they go on it a further 2 times then go to a drug-free prison for 1 year at a time as a standard sentence. In addition, they should have the option to reduce their sentence to 3 months by naming their supplier.
Daniel Barnett, Scotland

Nice idea in principle, and I am sure will work better for some. As a GP, I have to say it infuriates me that we always end up at the bottom of the pile for support services. What really bothers me, though, is that very few addicts are likely to benefit from counselling when their main aim is to escape or lessen punishment. My addict patients, some of whom are trying very hard to get straight, and relying on overstretched support workers, tell me that the only worthwhile motivation to tackle a drug problem is that the user wants to tackle it, not for any other perceived benefit. I fear that services will be shifted from the genuine minority towards those who want to be treated less severely.

One has to question the validity of this methodology. As a smoker that has tried to give up on several occasions I have a small insight into addiction, an addiction that is incomparable to heroin and crack. Four sessions of counselling and a politically sensitive re-categorisation of the said drug abuser is hardly a deterrent to re-offending; this is evidenced by offenders wanting to test positive for a lighter sentence. Isn't this just a stop-gap solution to reduce the numbers of criminals in our over-stretched and ineffective prison system?!
RA, England

This approach has already been and is an ongoing process in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. A safe haven house for drug users was developed and approved by the mayor of the city. It acts as a place to receive clean needles, a place to do your drugs as so not to be getting high on the streets. Mostly all drug addicts that go there do seek help. I realise places like this must seem to others who are not drug users as still encouraging drug use. But there is a major drug problem and instead of turning a blind eye, I believe that these places are one step further in the right direction in creating individual help for our 'fallen' fellow human lives.
Marcia Fleming, Vancouver, Canada

At last drug users are being treated as victims which they are. The drugs should be available on the NHS under a drug rehab program, to get them out of the clutches of the criminal gangs, who show no pity to anyone.
Anon, UK

Perhaps we are finally getting closer to a realisation and acceptance on the part of the government and official bodies that "misusers" who fund their habit through crime need to do so mainly because certain drugs have been arbitrarily criminalised by the government. Remove the criminal tag that is applied to these drugs and they will no longer have a rarity value, which will drastically cut pushers' profits, gun crime, burglaries, muggings, murders, etc. You don't often hear of alcoholics causing murder and mayhem in order to obtain their next fix of alcohol.
Peter, UK

I would question whether the priority should be to assist drug 'misusers' who commit crimes just to fund their addiction, or to benefit criminals who also happen take drugs as part of their lifestyle. Are we just trying to create healthier criminals, or to prevent crime?
Eddy Jenkinson, UK

"If they are committing 3,000 worth of burglaries a week to fund a habit, and the habit is reduced through counselling and treatment, the level of crime will also be reduced." If they are imprisoned for their crimes against others, then their criminal offences are reduced to zero. I am sick & tired of MY money being used to support those who offer nothing in return. Make sure that those who fund their drugs habit through crime are incarcerated for a number of years & THEN we will see a fall in offences.
Mike, UK

Thanks for your story and I found it very enlightening and supportive. I believe drug misuse is no.1 problem in my country and I am extremely concerned about the extent of young people in our population and substance misuse among them. I am very disappointed in the way the problem is dealt here and I strongly believe in the philosophy behind the ideas used in this experiment and hope that our authorities adopt such ideas to deal with our problem.
Aishath Aniya, Maldives

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