Police plan to hand out free heroin and fund needle ‘shooting galleries’ for addicts in controversial fight against drug-related crime

  • Durham Constabulary draws up detailed plans for Class A drug to be handed out
  • Chief Constable Mike Barton said police money will be used to supply heroin
  • The force will fund the programme from its already stretched budget
  • Critics said it wasn’t the place of police to provide illegal drugs to users

Police will give free heroin to addicts in a controversial bid to cut drug-related crime, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Durham Constabulary is the first force in the country to draw up detailed plans for the Class A drug to be handed to long-term users.

In an exclusive interview, Chief Constable Mike Barton told this newspaper that police money will be used to supply heroin to addicts to inject themselves twice a day in a supervised ‘shooting gallery’.

The force – rated the best in the country by watchdogs last week – will fund the programme from its already stretched budget.

Mr Barton admits the plan will attract criticism but insists it will reduce crime because the addicts will no longer have to steal to pay for their fix, and dealers will lose customers.

Durham Constabulary's Chief Constable Mike Barton, pictured, said police money will be used to hand out free heroin to addicts

Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable Mike Barton, pictured, said police money will be used to hand out free heroin to addicts

‘We need to get over our moral panic about giving people heroin as part of a treatment plan,’ he said.

‘Police were set up to prevent crime, not to arrest people.

‘Our primary concern is to prevent crime. If we’ve got people who are addicted to Class A drugs committing crime, it makes good sense to get that person off drugs. Addiction is a medical problem, not a criminal justice problem.’

But last night, critics said it wasn’t the place of police to provide illegal drugs to users and claimed it would attract addicts rather than help them get clean.

Professor Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, said: ‘I think the worry here is that once you set up a centre like this, it will attract addicts and they will remain dependent on heroin, undermining services committed to getting people off drugs. I think it’s extraordinary if the police budget is being used in this way.’

MP David Burrowes, who sits on the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: ‘I’m sure the public will be surprised and dismayed by this.

‘It’s one thing for public health money to be used in this way, but it’s quite another for the over-stretched policing budget.

‘I’m sure this money could go to catching suppliers of drugs rather than propping up addicts.’

Heroin addicts are usually treated by GPs who prescribe them the substitute drug methadone. Anyone caught possessing heroin can be jailed for up to seven years.

But in Durham, both the Chief Constable and the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner support the decriminalisation of drugs.

They claim medical evidence shows it is more effective to give heroin than methadone to addicts to help them get clean and stop committing crime.

They have asked public health experts to help make the radical plan a reality by commissioning an ‘options paper’ that will suggest different ways it could operate and the likely costs.

It is a crime to possess the Class A drug heroin (pictured) but police could give it to long-term users for free

It is a crime to possess the Class A drug heroin (pictured) but police could give it to long-term users for free

The service, known as Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT), would be provided for a small number of the estimated 2,000 heroin addicts in the North-East county’s rundown former mining towns.

Pharmaceutical heroin – diamorphine – would be prescribed by the NHS to a clinic where it could be locked away.

Heroin users referred to the scheme could attend twice a day to inject themselves under the strict supervision of health professionals to ensure they do not overdose and to prevent the drug getting on the black market.

Experts estimate it costs about £15,000 a year to provide one patient with supervised injectable heroin, three times as much as keeping them on methadone because of the cost of staff required to monitor them.

But Mr Barton believes giving addicts heroin as part of a plan to get them off drugs is better than keeping them on methadone, which is highly addictive and can leave users seeking other illegal highs.

He said: ‘What I would want is a facility for a small number of people to be provided with heroin rather than methadone.

 ‘It’s more expensive to give people heroin in terms of staff time. My understanding is that it’s got to be supervised because we don’t want any leakage of the heroin.

‘It’s not for everybody as I recognise that this is controversial. But there have been plenty of peer-reviewed experiments that have been reported in The Lancet that show this is an effective form of treatment.

‘Up until the 1960s this is what we did. People were prescribed heroin by their GP and encouraged to detox.’

But although the heroin treatment scheme could be costly at first, police insist it will save money and cut crime in the long run.

The Home Office estimates Class A drug misuse costs the economy £15 billion a year and that addicts are responsible for a third of burglaries and thefts.

Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg, a former officer, said: ‘Every HAT trial has shown a marked decrease in illicit street heroin use and no apparent evidence of drug overdoses.

While HAT does cost more than methadone initially, cost-benefit studies demonstrate that these higher costs are more than offset by savings in criminal justice and healthcare.’

Heroin: Demon drug that causes hundreds of deaths each year and fuelled the 90s crime epidemic

How widespread is heroin addiction in the UK?

Latest figures show that 149,807 people addicted to opiates – mainly heroin – sought treatment in 2015-16, down substantially from the turn of the decade. The number of registered heroin deaths increased by 26 per cent between 2014 and 2015 to hit a record 1,201.

What are the links between heroin use and crime?

Home Office research suggests as much as half of the rise in burglaries and car crime during the 1980s and 1990s was fuelled by heroin use. A recent academic study claimed each heroin addict will commit up to 260 offences a year, mainly theft, to pay for their fix.

What is the legal position on heroin?

A Heroin is a Class A drug. Possession is punishable by up to seven years in jail. Dealers can get life. In 2015-16, a total 1,777lb of heroin was seized in 8,050 separate incidents.

How can the state give the drug to addicts?

Doctors can prescribe pharmaceutical heroin – diamorphine – to addicts as part of treatment plans. The policy is so rare internationally that it is known as ‘the British system’. Recent experiments suggest that giving supervised injections is a better way of weaning addicts off the drug than prescribing the oral substitute methadone, which is itself highly addictive.

Why are Durham Police planning to fund heroin treatment, rather than the NHS?

The Chief Constable and Police Commissioner both believe drug addiction should be seen as a medical problem and that reducing substance abuse will cut crime in the area, making it a legitimate use of police money.

The scheme will differ from ‘consumption rooms’ that exist across Europe because most of these simply allow addicts to bring their own illegally purchased drugs and take them in safer conditions.

Mr Barton said: ‘I don’t think we should be condoning the buying of heroin. I don’t think police should be fans of people openly breaking the law.’

One option is for Durham Police to fund a pilot project previously run by the Department of Health in the former mining town of Easington.

Called the Recovery Injectable Opioid service, it allowed long-term drug addicts to go to a clinic twice a day and be handed a dose of diamorphine to inject themselves.

The idea was to help addicts ‘stop injecting street drugs, which would naturally lead to a cessation of criminal behaviour related to drug use’, according to NHS papers.

They would also be given support with housing, education, employment or relationships and encouraged to reduce the amount of drugs they were being given.

An official assessment showed 19 addicts used the service in the first year and there was a ‘significant reduction’ in drug use and an improvement in mental health.

Durham Constabulary do not need approval from the Home Office or the Department of Health for the radical plan.

A spokesman for Mr Hogg said he and Mr Barton were keen on ‘making heroin available to addicts as part of a treatment programme for recovering addicts’ and ‘have asked Public Health at County Durham to produce a costed options paper’.

Asked why the police should pay for the plan rather than health bodies, the spokesman said: ‘Mr Hogg sees HATs as one means by which the demand on policing can be addressed, and is prepared to consider funding them for that reason.

‘Also, Mr Hogg has responsibility for services for victims of crime and regards many heroin users as victims of their dealers and organised crime groups.

‘A HAT is also, therefore, a service for victims.’

Both Mr Barton and Mr Hogg believe the ‘war on drugs’ has failed and support decriminalisation so that addicts can be treated rather than punished.

Durham already takes a ‘softly-softly’ approach to cannabis, a Class B drug, turning a blind eye to personal use and small-scale growing.

Drug takers have also escaped prosecution by taking part in the force’s Checkpoint course.

If addicts admit their crime and promise to go straight they are given help to turn their lives around rather than be sent to court.

Early results suggest that just 4 per cent of those who abide by the terms of their contracts go on to reoffend.

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