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Treat or get tough? Britain tries again


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 31, 2001

BRIGHTON, England -- This windy seaside town, once known as an elegant summer retreat for well-heeled holidaymakers, has lost its gloss.

With the highest level of heroin-related deaths in Britain, Brighton has an unseemly reputation as the country's drug mecca.

"Brighton is top of the league when it comes to drugs," says Ray Jenkins, a 38-year-old reformed heroin addict who manages a substance misuse program for a local charity called Crime Reduction Initiative. "It's not something we are proud of."

Like their counterparts in the United States, Jenkins and other drug charity workers are critical of the lack of government money for drug treatment programs. They say that proper treatment services could reduce the spiraling crime and health costs associated with drug addiction.

But unlike their counterparts in the United States, they are growing more optimistic about winning the debate.

"The government is just beginning to realize that we need to have better treatment services," Jenkins says. "It's a time of great expansion and great activity."

After experimenting with repressive U.S.-style criminal justice measures to crack down on drug abuse, the government has come under increasing pressure to adopt a softer approach more in line with its European neighbors.

With one foot in each camp, the British drug debate provides a useful barometer on where international drug policy is headed.

For years Britain was at the forefront of the "harm reduction" approach to the drug problem, which advocates treating addiction as a public health issue and not a criminal one.

Britain led the world in the 1980s by adopting a government-paid needle exchange. Today, the program distributes about 3-million syringes a year to addicts from 2,000 centers around the country.

But cocaine and heroin use, as well as drug-related crime, have risen in recent years, the rise a product of high unemployment in parts of Britain coupled with the greater availability of drugs. Advocates of better treatment for addicts have lost ground to political pressure for more repressive criminal justice measures.

In the late 1990s, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government began to incorporate drug policy into a "get tough on crime" strategy that even proposed mandatory drug testing for all criminals.

"We have gone through several stages and gone through them very quickly. We might look as though we have a foot in every continent," says Gerry Stimson, a professor who heads the drug research center at Imperial College, one of London's top medical schools.

The tide is turning again.

After a top British Cabinet minister suggested the government might consider relaxing its stance on drugs, a national newspaper poll found 37 percent of Brits favored legalizing marijuana -- a dramatic increase over previous surveys.

The outgoing chief inspector of prisons called for the legalization of all drugs, and leaders across the political spectrum have since chimed in.

The left-wing mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (known as "Red Ken"), described the war on drugs as a failure and called for greater emphasis on treatment. The former deputy leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Peter Lilley, also broke ranks to advocate the sale of marijuana in licensed outlets.

Marijuana possession carries a maximum five-year jail sentence and a $7,000 fine. Police complain that dealing with marijuana drains their ability to police more dangerous Class A drugs.

An independent inquiry last year, the first in 30 years, was set up to examine marijuana laws. Headed by a member of the government's advisory council on the misuse of drugs, the inquiry recommended substantial reductions in penalties for marijuana possession.

But the report was largely dismissed by the Blair government.

This month, police in the London borough of Lambeth took matters into their own hands, announcing a radical six-month experiment. Instead of arresting pot smokers, officers will confiscate their drugs and issue only a caution.

Robert Broadhurst, head of the Brixton police, one of Lambeth's toughest neighborhoods, says the experiment has helped his officers devote more resources to the area's crack cocaine problem, which has dealers selling crack right from the train station platform. "We are overwhelmed by it," he says. "It's an open drug market."

In the last year, Lambeth police spent about 5,000 hours processing 680 arrests for marijuana possession, only to see most offenders let off with small fines.

"The courts don't use the powers they have," Broadhurst says. "When we know there's no tangible results some of the PCs (police constables) are saying, "Why are we doing this?' "

Critics of government policy hail the Lambeth experiment.

"Legalizing cannabis would be a sensible step, but what is more urgently required is a fundamental overhaul of the prohibitionist policies on drugs such as heroin and cocaine that successive British governments have imported from the United States," says John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics.

"When drug use is commonplace and widely seen as normal it makes no sense to prohibit it. The result can only be to make criminals of otherwise perfectly ordinary people."

But policymakers are wary of any march toward legalization, arguing that removing the ban would likely lead to wider drug use.

"Quite frankly we don't know enough about these drugs when they are used in an unsupervised manner," says Detective Geoff Monaghan, a drug policy expert with the Association of Chief Police Officers, which advises the government.

About 1,800 criminally active drug users are in the Brighton area, which has a population of about 350,000. Social workers estimate that every cocaine or heroin addict enrolled in a needle exchange saves more than $100,000 in health costs. Dirty needles are what cause most drug-related infections, including AIDS and hepatitis C.

In recent years, Britain has succeeded in dramatically reducing the AIDS infection rate among intravenous drug users, down to 130 new cases last year.

"I'm glad as a country we are moving away from "Just Say No,' " says Jenkins, the Brighton substance misuse worker. "It's about taking the lid off it. We have to get to grips with the fact that kids are going to try this."

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