By North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones
It costs around £65,000 to send somebody to prison in this country once police, court costs and all the other steps are taken into account. After that it costs a further £30,000 plus for each year they spend locked up.
In the case of problematic drug users, is it money well spent? No, it certainly is not. In fact, we might as well be tipping all that public money down the drain because the war on drugs has failed and is doomed to continue failing. Sadly, we have not learnt any lessons from the failures of prohibition in America in the 1920s
Whilst we should most certainly continue to crack down on major drug suppliers and organised crime lords, we need to take a completely different approach to the people who are addicted to drugs.
We should be treating addiction as a medical issue and not as a crime. These people are victims and we should show some common sense and some compassion.
I say this as somebody who wants to stay true to the ethos of the police service as set out by Sir Robert Peel whose core principles were about saving life and property.
It’s totally unacceptable that we’re losing 2,500 people in the UK who are dying every year through drug-related deaths, especially when many of those deaths are preventable if only we put in simple harm reduction measures.
I worked as a police officer for more than 30 years and saw at first hand the heart-breaking damage that drugs cause to those who are addicted, their families and friends.
It’s a self-destructive vicious circle. People who are addicted to drugs often steal so they can buy their next fix. They are arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison. They come out of prison still addicted and the cycle starts all over again just like a horror version of Groundhog Day.
You can’t force somebody into treatment or rehabilitation until they’re ready. That’s the nature and the power of addiction, so in the meantime we should have things in place for harm reduction to protect problematic drug users
For example, setting up a Drug Consumption Room (DCR) in Wrexham where people suffering from problematic drug use can take the drugs themselves safely and hygienically and could potentially save lives, but and would also provide real benefits to the community.
Fewer discarded needles will ensure safer streets while more hygienic facilities will reduce the spread of disease like HIV. At the same time, the emergency services will be able to reach more quickly anybody who suffers an overdose, becomes violent while under the influence or pricks themselves accidentally.
Importantly, for the community a Drug Consumption Room can reduce crime because it will free up police officers to concentrate on serious offences whilst providing an opportunity to help those taking drugs to address other issues like poverty and homelessness.
Earlier this year I travelled to Switzerland with my Durham counterpart, Ron Hogg.
There they have established a Drug Consumption Roon at the back of Geneva Railway Station, and that was frequented by large numbers of individuals openly taking drugs and which was very similar to the situation in Wrexham. Now, it’s a place where users can go to inject, snort or smoke drugs under supervision.
What I saw in Geneva further convinced me that Drug Consumption Rooms would be useful in North Wales and particularly Wrexham where there have been well documented drug problems.
They would give problematic users somewhere secure to go rather than having to inject in public areas and upsetting people with the state they are in. They would also be much safer as nobody has ever died in a Drug Consumption Room.
As part of the set up, I would like there to be a drug testing service similar to the one provided at a number of music festivals provided by The LoopUK, an organisation which usually conducts forensic testing of drugs seized by police.
Most of those people taking street drugs don’t know what’s in them or how powerful they are. For all they know, their heroin might be cut with cement or with fentanyl, the highly addictive opioid that killed the singer, Prince.
Fentanyl and carfentanyl, which is so deadly it’s been banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention, are already responsible for around 70 deaths in this country and many more in Canada and the United States where it’s reached epidemic proportions.
I suspect we may be heading in that direction here unless we take a new and different approach. We need to protect the victims of addiction from the unknown substances they buy from the criminal elements on the streets.
At the moment they haven’t got a clue what they’re taking and that’s the cause of most of these opiate drug related deaths.
People who are alcoholics or are addicted to painkillers or anti-depressants are tolerated and shown much more compassion than those who are addicted to unlawful substances. My view is that we should treat all addictions in the same way – as a medical issue so that we help and support people when they need it.
At the moment in Wrexham there is a cohort of around 80 individuals who have a multitude of complex needs around homelessness, substance abuse and mental health problems.
The symptoms people see are the incidences of anti-social behaviour but things will not get better until we address the causes.
My views on this issue were formed over many years working as a police officer, seeing the futility of locking up people with problematic drug use, only to see them come before the courts again and again. It is an issue I campaigned on when I stood to be elected as Police and Crime Commissioner.
We do not necessarily need new legislation to open a Drug Consumption Room and a similar idea has been given the go-ahead in Glasgow. We do however need a change of culture and the buy-in of organisations like the Area Planning Board, the health board and the local authority so we can work in partnership.
There is an expectation that drug taking and the anti-social behaviour are police matters. That is not the case. We deal with the symptoms but other agencies should be dealing with the underlying causes.
Every life lost has an emotional cost to the family, friends and society in general, as well as the public purse. Saving lives by adopting sensible harm reduction measures would be a win-win for everybody. A Drug Consumption Room is a natural progression from other measures like the provision of needles which resulted in reducing the number of HIV cases.
In short, the bottom line for me is that a Drug Consumption Room would save lives.