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Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
A career of controversy: Keith Hellawell
Keith Hellawell
Understanding of the darker side of life: Keith Hellawell
As the government's drugs adviser and former "drugs czar" Keith Hellawell resigns from his job, News Online looks at his career

The special role of the nation's chief drugs fighter was always likely to be a controversial and somewhat thankless task, even for a former police chief constable.

But Keith Hellawell was no stranger to controversy when he was appointed "drugs czar" four years ago and has remained unshaken on his stance against drugs while opinion elsewhere may have shifted.

Two years into the job he called for police to stop pursuing cannabis users so rigorously in an attempt to focus on drugs which cause "the major harm", such as heroin and cocaine.

However he told the BBC he did not support "legalisation nor decriminalisation nor 'depenalisation'" of cannabis.

Reduced role

Mr Hellawell's resignation comes as Home Secretary David Blunkett announces plans to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug.

He denies the government's claims that he had supported the scheme when it was floated last year.

Cannabis joint
Keith Hellawell says cannabis is a harmful drug
Differences between the "czar" and the government appear to have been a common feature of his career.

In August last year he criticised the clarity of the cannabis debate among politicians and public figures, which he said was encouraging youngsters to be attracted to such substances.

His role was then reduced in October, as responsibility for drugs policy was moved from the cabinet office to the home office.

He was given a two-days-a-week role as part time adviser - which included helping countries who had applied for European Union membership to develop anti-drugs strategies.

Drugs cautions

Mr Hellawell had risen from humble beginnings to the 106,057-a-year job as the nation's chief drugs fighter.

It seems the former Yorkshire coal miner gained an understanding of the links between social deprivation and the causes of crime from his tough childhood and working class background.

During his time as chief constable of West Yorkshire he had operated a policy of widespread cautioning of cannabis-takers instead of automatically prosecuting them.

But proponents of the legalisation of cannabis won no sympathy from him.

His supporters said he represented a fresh approach to tackling the drugs menace and displayed greater foresight than officers from the lock-them-all-up brigade.

Mr Hellawell left school at the age of 15 with a report stating he was good at sport, but little else. He went down the pit as the family breadwinner but now does not talk publicly about his childhood, acknowledging only that it was difficult. Some reports have suggested he suffered violence.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Brenda Hey. Having always wanted to be a police officer, he applied to join the force, and was successful only on a second try.

Degrees of success

He became Britain's youngest sergeant aged 23. He progressed to assistant chief constable, serving in most departments and was awarded the Queen's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1990.

Tall and broad-shouldered, Hellawell once admitted he used his presence to intimidate suspects. But as he matured, his tactic changed to developing an understanding of prisoners.

In the 1960s, he launched one of the first dedicated drugs squads, before winning a place on a fast track to promotion, passing the exams with flying colours.

Along the way, he studied for a degree in social policy and took a degree in law in his spare time, as if to illustrate his energy and determination.

As a chief constable, Keith Hellawell made some unpopular decisions
As chief constable of Cleveland, he won wide praise as a voice of sense and reason while dealing with allegations of sexual abuse as families were separated after controversial tests.

He became assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire in 1983. If he was considered soft on drug-takers, he was also seen as tough on fellow officers - a combination which earned him critics, even enemies.

Once dubbed the Black Night for dressing entirely in black and driving a black Porsche, Hellawell sent shockwaves through the force as he set about reforming "outdated" attitudes.

He shut police station bars and sacked several desk-bound senior officers to hire more beat officers. He also spoke out against assaults on prisoners.

Comments controversy

At the same time, he advocated special drugs courts, which sentenced offenders to addiction treatment, not jail. Those who resented his methods branded him "shockingly soft" and "all mouth and no trousers".

His belief in tackling social problems rather than punishment was unwavering.

Controversy has followed him everywhere. He advocated reform of the law on prostitution and legalisation of brothels.

After the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was arrested, Hellawell was brought in on the case - and succeeded in gaining more confessions.

There was more outrage after he spontaneously wrote a Christmas card for Sutcliffe.

Standing tough

But as drugs "czar" - a term he is said to dislike - he appears to have tried to play down the "soft" label, launching a series of tough initiatives.

After Chris Evans claimed that half BBC staff were on drugs, he even called for Britain's workers to be randomly tested.

There were also shocks when he suggested children as young as four should be taught the dangers of drugs.

Yet, in time, his policing achievements and his vision eventually earned him huge respect.

Mr Hellawell's life reads like a rags-to-riches story with the somewhat sour ending that has come to be expected from such a high profile public figure.


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19 May 98 | Drugs
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