Dealers in Durham selling Class A drugs to support their own addictions will no longer be prosecuted, according to Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton.
This scheme is a new addition to Checkpoint, Durham Police's groundbreaking approach to drugs policy, as revealed by VICE in October of 2016. Initially, the programme applied only to drug users, with people arrested for possession having their prosecutions "suspended", subject to the successful completion of a four-month "contract" – during which offenders must attend a series of drug awareness, restorative justice and community work programmes.
The thinking behind the scheme is pretty straightforward: focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and help drug users avoid another notch on their criminal record that might later make it more difficult for them to find work. At the time VICE's article was published, only three of the 74 drugs offenders who had been diverted to the Checkpoint had failed to complete their contract and have their offences expunged.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday about the next step of the programme, Chief Constable Barton said: "From next month, anyone caught in possession of any drugs will go on Checkpoint. If they agree, they will not face prosecution or go to court. They are technically dealers, but if they are sad people rather than bad, we want to stop their addiction. Then we can focus on the really bad people. If they are selling heroin to feed their habit, we do not want to send them to prison."
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He then made an objectively correct point about the inadequacies of the current approach to the policing of low-level drug offences: "What's the point in an addict going to court and getting a £50 fine? If they pay it at all, they will only steal or sell five bags of heroin to fund it. How does that help us?"
Of course, not everyone is so keen on the approach. Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, who founded drugs charity DrugFAM after losing her son Nick to heroin addiction, told the Mail: "This is absolutely wrong. If you are an active drug dealer, you are dealing in death."
The counter-argument here, however, would be that in trying something new – helping drug-reliant users get clean – rather than reverting to the failed tactics of the war on drugs, you'll continue to take smalltime dealers off the streets, while freeing up more time and resources to target the traffickers and wholesale drugs sellers who bear a much larger responsibility for fuelling the drug trade.
Either way, drug deaths in the UK are the highest they have been since records began, and the government doesn't seem to want to even trial any different approaches to sorting this mess out. So at least we have people like Barton who are brave enough to try something new.
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