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Meet the British Police Trying to Decriminalize Drugs

Plenty of cops are tired of fighting the War on Drugs, a battle they know full well they’re never going to win. In 2002, a group of American police set up LEAP. Though it remains relatively small, LEAP’s UK branch has been operating since 2008.
May 21, 2014, 5:00am

A police officer holding a wrap on a stop-and-search operation in Soho (Photo by Tom Johnson)

Did you know that the majority of police officers don’t get into the force to bust people for dime bags? While it might occasionally seem like that—especially if you had little else to do growing up other than smoking weed and saving up to pay back your bail bonds—plenty of cops are tired of fighting the War on Drugs, a battle they know full well they’re never going to win.


In 2002, a group of American police who were fed up of making menial street arrests for petty drug offenses set up LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), an organization that aims to bring together law enforcement and criminal justice workers who support a system of regulation and control of drugs that currently remain illegal.

Though it remains relatively small, LEAP’s UK branch has been operating since 2008, headed up by volunteer Jason Reed since 2010. Reed is a 34-year-old medicinal cannabis user from Kent who’s suffered from ME (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome) for 25 years.

Jason Reed

“I’ve had a fairly insidious legacy with prescription drugs, and they tend to make you seek other alternatives,” he told me. “Cannabis will put you back to where you need to be to be a functional human being.”

After meeting in a pub in King’s Cross, Jason put me in touch with three of LEAP’s UK speakers, two former cops and one former MI5 intelligence officer. I had a chat with them about why they think drug prohibition is failing.

Jim Duffy was in the now defunct Strathclyde Police for 33 years. He spent 23 of those in the traffic department, regularly apprehending men on the M74 who were paying off their debts by driving drugs up to Scotland from Liverpool. Between 1997-2000 he was the deputy director of traffic training for the whole of Scotland, before retiring as an inspector in 2007.

In 2004, I got sight of a report that said there had been 105 drug deaths in the Strathclyde area. At that time, I was a fully paid-up member of what I call the “Hang ‘em, flog ‘em and shoot ‘em” brigade. I thought, 'We need to catch more of these dealers and we need to put them in jail for longer,' which was the standard approach at that time. Over the next two weeks, I read a couple of other bits of paper that told me how many people had been killed on the roads and how many people had died from alcohol and smoking in the west of Scotland.


I had a eureka moment when I suddenly said to myself, 'You’re spending all this time and all this effort and all this money targeting the “War on Drugs”, and there are more people dying from alcohol, tobacco and gambling abuse than who die from drug abuse." Based on that, I went and did a bit of research and, in 2005, put forward what they call the discussion resolution at the Scottish Police Federation on whether we should think about legalizing drugs. It attracted bucketloads of interest from the press. I did my presentation and it snowballed from there.

I had two bits of abuse from people, but some fairly senior officers from within the organizations said off-the-record, “Aye, you’re actually right. We’ll never win this one.”

The biggest problem at the moment is that our politicians don’t have the balls to stand up. They all very much keep their beliefs private, and once that groundswell of opinion starts to move forwards then we’ll get change.

At the moment, people are buying stuff and the dealer will decide what it’s cut with. Once you regulate it, people will know it does exactly what it says on the tin—they’ll know the strength, the purity and the effect. The other thing it does is take people out of the criminal justice system. You no longer have to commit a criminal offense in order to go and buy your recreational drugs or feed your habit. Once you take the criminality out of it, people can go forwards for treatment without having the stigma of having to admit they’ve committed a criminal offense.


I don’t advocate that anyone should take drugs, but the same as tobacco and alcohol—if you’re over 18, know your responsibilities, know the effects and you want to do it—you should be allowed to do it. My drug of choice comes from a distillery in the Highlands, in the form of a single malt. I have no interest in smoking cannabis or taking any other drugs, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect other people’s opinions if they want to go ahead and do that.

Paul Whitehouse began his policing career in Durham in 1967, eventually becoming assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester in 1983, deputy chief constable of West Yorkshire in 1987 and finally chief constable of Sussex in 1993. He retired in 2001. He is convinced that the Misuse of Drugs Act is the reason drugs have become a problem.

Most of the people on drugs in those days [pre-1971] were people who’d become addicted to them either through working in medicine or being prescribed drugs. It was treated as an illness. The Act made it illegal and created the market that has since grown out of all proportion. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that prohibition doesn’t work.

People use dirty needles or they get drugs that haven't been properly produced – that have been deliberately cut with other substances. All sorts of risks stem from that, and all sorts of harm comes from it. Yes, drugs cause harm; yes, there’s no doubt alcohol causes harm. We live with the harm alcohol causes. We need to understand whether the harm caused by drugs is worse than the harm caused by banning drugs.


There is very good evidence from the prohibition of alcohol in the States, and the principle is exactly the same. Alcohol has been known in almost every society. The other drugs tend to come from Eastern societies a lot of the time. Who is anyone to say that alcohol is a worse or better drug than cannabis or heroin? There are some countries in the world where the alcohol problem is worse than the drug problem, such as Russia.

We know, incidentally, that tobacco kills you, but we don’t stop people smoking it, we just make it more and more difficult and tax it. We don’t collect any money from illegal drugs, we just spend an enormous amount of money trying to stop it and not succeeding.

The benefits for society as a whole – of legalizing cannabis, for example – would be less aggravation between those people who think they ought to be able to use cannabis [and those who don't]. There are groups of people who honestly believe that cannabis is good for them medicinally.

I’ve never used illegal drugs myself; I’ve never felt I wanted to. I drink alcohol, but not very much. I don’t mind what other people do, provided they don’t harm other people. It’s not for government to say what you shouldn’t do if you like doing it.

Annie Machon is a former MI5 intelligence officer who quit in 1996 to become a whistle-blower. She has since written a book about MI5 and speaks, among other things, about how her insight into the illegal drug market has opened her eyes to the benefits of legalisation.

One of the postings I had at MI5 was to Irish terrorism. That meant I worked very closely with UK customs. I became very aware at that time that the drug war was effectively lost. It made me very aware of the overlap between the drug trade and the funding of terrorist groups. The DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] in America estimates that over half the designated terrorist groups in the world today get most of their funding from the illegal drug trade.


The most notorious one is in Afghanistan at the moment. The acreage under growth of the opium poppy has doubled across the country and, in some areas, has tripled – most notably in the areas that the Brits controlled. This money is going directly into the hands of the Taliban and the warlords. The trade is now worth between half a billion – getting on for a billion – dollars per year. That buys a lot of Kalashnikovs.

Generally, drug enforcement is seen as something that is detrimental to the social contract between the police and the policed. If you have a law in place that is widely ignored – and, for example, with smoking cannabis it is – then the law becomes an ass. You have the situation where the people’s view of that law is wrong, but there’s no mechanism for them to affect change quickly through the political system, and the police are told to go out there to do the politicians’ dirty work to clean up.

The other problem is that changes are made to how the police are assessed. So, for example, if you have performance-related analyses of what they get up to, the temptation in the UK is to go for the low-hanging fruit. You want so many arrests this month? The easiest thing is to arrest someone for having weed in their pocket – then you’ve filled your quota.

If the politicians impose these assessments on the police, then the police will go for the easier option, which, of course, means that they’re not focusing on the trickier issues – the more serious crimes that people are more worried about, scared about. You can arrest the user, you can arrest even a street dealer and take them off the street for a few months at most. But if you arrest a rapist, there are no more rapes from that person, and that’s the sort of thing that I think the public are more concerned about and would like to see the police putting their resources into.

It’s a bit of a self-damaging circle. I think a lot of police are very aware that it does damage them going into their job, because they want to serve the public, but then they’re forced to predate on the public.

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