The day police told Parliament to end the war on drugs

Suzanne Sharkey is a former constable and undercover officer at Northumbria Constabulary
Suzanne Sharkey is a former constable and undercover officer at Northumbria Constabulary

By Simon Oxenham

Last week Neil Franklin, a retired major from Maryland State Police, led a troop of serving and former police chiefs, soldiers and a former spy into the Parliament to call MPs to end the war on drugs. Their testimony was damning and revealing.

Franklin opened the meeting with an explanation of the campaign's mission to "reduce crime, disease, death and addiction by ending the most socially destructive public policy since slavery." Franklin explained how his organisation of "police officers, agents, judges, criminal prosecutors, corrections officials and others" including over 180,000 members and supporters in over 180 countries share one goal, to end "the world’s longest war".

According to Franklin "we have been attempting to solve a public health crisis with criminal justice solutions and the results have been catastrophic". While repeated calls from academia and public health have failed to convince most politicians, the group hopes calls from within the criminal justice system will finally make them listen. What follows are all direct quotes, edited for concision.


Suzanne Sharkey (pictured above): Former Constable and Undercover Officer at Northumbria Constabulary

"When I look back at my time in the police I feel ashamed, I feel a sense of failure. I feel ashamed that I wasn’t arresting career criminals. I was arresting people from poor socially deprived areas with little or no hope whose crime was non-violent drug possession, a complete failure of the war on drugs. I believe that one of the biggest barriers for people with problematic substance misuse to seeking help and treatment is the current drug policy. It does nothing, it achieves nothing except creating more harm for individuals, families and society as a whole. All of us know the problems and what we need to do but rather than be united by the problems let’s be united by the solutions. Solutions based in health, education and compassion rather than criminalisation."

PCC Ron Hogg: serving police and crime commissioner for Durham spoke alongside Mike Barton, the chief constable of Durham police force. The pair made headlines last year for effectively decriminalising small-scale cannabis growers and users in Durham.

"We are very clear in our view in Durham constabulary that the war has failed, that it won’t succeed and it never will succeed and we have to change our views and the way we approach things. The whole purpose of a drugs policy must be to minimise the harms that drugs cause to individuals and to our communities and optimise the benefits that drugs can bring.

"Heroin and crack cocaine addiction is responsible for 43% of acquisitive crime. Responsible for 33% of fraud as people commit crimes to feed their habits. This appears to many to be a satisfactory situation, we don’t think that’s the way things should be going forward. That’s why we’ve taken a stand in Durham. We’ve put our heads above the parapet to produce new ways of tackling drug and alcohol addiction.

"As we dismantle one organised crime group there’s another one ready to come and take its place but what you do find is the levels of violence and organisation tends to increase incrementally as we go forward. So we really have to break the cycle if we’re going to do something significant."

Annie Machon – Former Mi5 Officer tasked with investigating terrorist logistics

"I first came to the knowledge that the war on drugs was an abject failure when I was working as an intelligence officer at Mi5 in the 1990s. One of my tasks was to investigate terrorist logistics and to do this I worked very closely with customs and excise, both the national investigations division and at ports. During that time I learned from them that even at that time they viewed the war on drugs as unwinnable. I learned about the massive overlap in funding between the illegal drugs trade and terrorist organisations, and this is global not just in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. We see this time and time again, in Afghanistan, in some of the Latin American countries where terrorist organisations are largely funded by drug money. We've seen most of West Africa descend into a kind of narco-state where armed militias compete for drug territory.

"On the one hand we have prohibition that pushes the war on drugs underground and creates huge conflicts globally. On the other hand we are fighting the war on terror which is largely funded by this war on drugs. So it strikes me as illogical unless it's a very clever circular business model that has been only too successful.

"We know this is going on because bank after bank has been fined record numbers for being caught money laundering. In 2009 the sheer scale of the corruption of our banking industry became clear. In 2009 a man named Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime went on the record saying after the financial crash of 2008, but for drug money many large international banks would not have had any cash liquidity.

"By ensuring prohibition ends we would be able to end the biggest crime wave our world has ever seen. We would be able to protect millions if not billions of people around the planet who have been ravaged not just by the drug war, crimes and the vicious violence but also by terrorist groups funded largely by this trade who continue to maim and kill around the planet too."

Patrick Hennessy – Served as a grenadier guard officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a practicing barrister.

"It is so blindingly obvious you have to question that there are grown up people with important jobs who don't see this themselves — you can't fight a war on a thing! As someone who has fought two or three wars against people and states, you can't fight a war on a thing.

"In Helmand more than 400 British servicemen, countless hundreds of Afghan servicemen and civilians who are often forgotten when we talk about this, hundreds of Americans, Canadian, French, Estonian soldiers, amongst others, all lost their lives in Helmand, which produces half of Afghanistan's opium.

"What we didn't understand in the army while I was there. What we don't seem to have understood for most of the time that we were spending billions of pounds and losing people there, but what is certainly the case is that the people we are fighting in Helmand, who I was fighting, were probably not Taliban in the sense that they'd signed up, come over the border from Pakistan, and want to create a new government in Kabul.

"Sanguin is just a crazily brilliant example of this. The last bit of Sanguin which as we speak, is under Government of Afghanistan control — if there is such a thing – both in the sense of control and the sense that there is a government in Afghanistan. The last bit of Sanguin is what is known as Forward Operating Base Jackson for the British and American servicemen who went there. It is now known as Sanguin District Centre. It was the first building that the para's bought and negotiated their way into in 2006 and it became the headquarters of British operations. It was one of the houses of a guy called Lal Jan who was a prominent operator from the Ishaqzai tribe tribe in Helmand, who before the British arrived, controlled the Sanguin Bazaar where he levied a tax on most of the opium that went through it, the most lucrative thing going. They weren't around when the British came in, so this building which is now the Sanguin DC was sold to the British not by the owner but the owner's rival tribe's elder who obviously saw a great way of getting his rival out. He gave up this house for a couple of thousand dollars, for a house that wasn't his and the British and the Americans and now the Afghan security forces have been there ever since.

"The majority of the fighting that has been done, over eight years, 106 British servicemen, about 100 Americans in Sanguin alone, has been from members of this tribe from the guy who wants his house back and wants control of the market where he can level the tax on opium back. It's just staggering to think that this is what it comes down to.

"The Helmand economy is the opium economy. When I was there we weren't being shot at too much because despite what we were being told further up the chain we weren't so stupid as to not go into every village and say 'we're not going to touch your poppy' and arguably the upturn in violence against coalition forces came in 2009 and in 2010 when the American marine brigade started saying 'oh hang on, weren't we supposed to eradicating poppies? Well that isn't a strategic consideration but let's do that'. Funnily enough, when everybody's livelihood started going up in smoke they started planting IEDs. If you want a starting point on how illogical and illiterate this whole process is, look there.

"One of the last and most depressing administrative tasks I had to do when I decided I was leaving the army was I had to kick out one of my best soldiers. He was a 21 year old lance corporal who had failed a compulsory drugs test because he had taken a pill at a festival having come back from seven months in Afghanistan where he had put seven of his best mates in a box. The guy that signed his discharge papers —my boss, who is also an absolutely brilliant soldier, he'd had a six month rack on the knuckles earlier that year for his drink driving conviction. In 2008 15 people died from MDMA related deaths — and goodness knows what that actually means, dehydration other substances etc —  while 1350 serious life changing injuries resulted from drink driving and 350 fatalities, which is almost as many lives as we lost in Helmand over 14 years."

Paul Whitehouse: Former Chief Constable for 8 years at Sussex Police, with 30 years experience in policing.

"I was the first member of the Durham constabulary drugs squad. I was put into a taskforce charged with detecting offenders who were committing offences which the previous year had not existed. What they were doing was suddenly illegal. How do you maintain faith with a community when you're saying — no you can't do that! 30 years in the police service made it absolutely clear to me that the policy you adopt whether you are in government, whether you are running a police force or running anything else for that matter should depend on evidence.

"Prohibition has failed in alcohol and because it failed with alcohol it isn't going to work with drugs. It cannot possibly work while we spend money on criminalising people who are doing probably less harm to themselves than some of the people who go binge drinking.

"One of my abiding memories is of a politician called Michael Howard, when he was home secretary and I was a chief constable and we were invited to a lunch in London to celebrate the ten year anniversary of an organisation called Addaction. There was a fairly big table filled with the great and the good, you can visualise it. He was the guest of honour because he was Home Secretary and I was there representing the police service. We were the only two people around the table who didn't drink alcohol and I remarked about that and he came back and said 'thank you, I hadn't wanted to say it but I endorse that policy, how can we say that alcohol that causes untold harm – just look at domestic violence etc – if we think alcohol is that bad why don't we ban it? Because it won't work and we should take the same view on drugs"

Hubert Wimber: Former Police Chief in Münster, Germany

"Since the turn of the century we have established a good and trusting cooperation between the community in Münster and the police. It depends on the fact that in 2002 we established the first drug consumption room in our city and the second in Germany. Heroin users can shoot up in good hygienic conditions and with the opportunity for medical attendance. "At that time this was against the resistance of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna. Since that time we have no disorder problem in the public area of Münster caused by drug consumers. For example 180,000 used needles are exchanged in the consumption room each year.  Before these would be found in the public parks and the children's playgrounds in the city, this was a real disorder problem".

James Duffy: Former Head of Strathclyde Police

"Prohibition has been an out and out failure. It hasn't worked anywhere in the world. Anywhere at all. I joined the police in 1975. In 1975 we talked about tenner bags. I left 32 years later. We still talk tenner bags. If inflation had kept pace with it, it would have been £147. That didn't happen. Prohibition doesn't work and the reason I know it doesn't work with absolute certainty is that if you had a drug free street or town or village, anywhere in your country you wouldn't be able to get near it for politicians, because they would all be standing there saying 'look what we've done'.

"It doesn't work for lots of reasons. In Scotland we have 350,000 casual cannabis users, if we put them into a vote in parliament they would get nine or ten seats, they don't get that. We have 55,000 heroin addicts. We lock them up. We put them in jail, where it costs us nearly £150,000 a week to keep them there. It's almost as bad as things are in America where between 1971 and 2007 they put 39 million people in jail for non-violent drug offences. Prohibition doesn't work. There is a demand for it and simply saying no doesn't stop demand.

"The thing you have to say about your drug dealers is they are the people who decide what drugs they give away and sell to your children and your grandchildren. They are the people who will decide what it's cut with, what the strength will be, what the effect will be. They don't ask for ID. They will sell it to whoever has the money. That's a shameful situation and we've allowed that to continue for the last 45 years by the continued prosecution under the Misuse of Drugs Act and the idea that prohibition will make a difference. It has not and it will not and we need to change that.

"If we don't change that and you are quite happy to sit on your hands we will be having this debate in 10, 12, 15 years time and in that time the number of people who die as a result of the misuse of drugs will increase. It is a public safety issue.

"The government are always telling us that the use of drugs is going down, but it's going down marginally. To the extent that in the next 70 years it will be back at where the 1970's levels were. We don't have 70 years to wait, it needs to be addressed now.

"It's a real public health issue for a number of reasons. In my home country of Scotland we have a terrific Scotch whisky industry. It's supported by the government, it's publicised by the government, it's legalised, it's regulated, they make obscene amounts of tax to pay for this place. 7000 people die a year from alcohol in Scotland. The tobacco industry employs lots of people, raises a great deal of tax and we have 13,000 deaths in Scotland every year from tobacco. From all of my investigations I cannot find a single recorded death from cannabis anywhere in the UK. 

"I might not be the brain of Britain but even I can work out that we are targeting the wrong things. We wouldn't ban alcohol because it doesn't work, we like a drink. We wouldn't ban tobacco because the lepers at the gate outside like a smoke. We wouldn't ban gambling because people like a wee bet. All things in moderation, so why do we think that by banning drugs through prohibition we can stop this. We can't.

"Politicians in this place and other places have the ability and the powers to change things. They need to start putting their heads above the parapet."

Norman Lamb: Liberal Democrat MP and former health minister in the coalition government was the only MP to speak. Norman is presenting a motion at the Lib Dem spring conference calling the party to support a regulated cannabis market.

"It's time to call time on the most discredited policy and that is the war on drugs. Started incidentally by the most discredited of US Presidents, President Richard Nixon. It has been spectacular in its failure. We have managed to provide an annual multibillion dollar industry straight into organised crime internationally, fuelling terrorist networks. We have managed at the same time to criminalise very many of our young people blighting their career prospects for doing something that only affects themselves. We choose to criminalise them whilst at the same time probably 50% of our current government have taken drugs in their time but happened to get away with it, so haven't had their lives blighted. Yet they maintain the argument that we continue to prosecute people. It is the height of hypocrisy. For me this should be a health issue."

Follow Simon Oxenham for updates on drug policy news as well as discussion of the latest psychology and neuroscience research findings on Twitter and Facebook.

Photography: Russell Bloor and Sam Seal

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Comments

Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Lunchtime. Your inbox. It's a date.