Is legalisation the answer to Norfolk's drug problem?
PUBLISHED: 06:30 16 April 2019 | UPDATED: 07:57 16 April 2019
As Norfolk's Class A drug supply remains stable despite more than 1,000 arrests, calls are being made for a radical change in policy. Luke Powell reports.
In December 2016 Norfolk police launched a crackdown on the county's Class A drug trade in response to an increase in violent crime.
Code-named Operation Gravity, it has seen officers conduct countless raids, undercover stings and take dozens of dealers off the streets.
Yet after more than 1,000 arrests, the county's chief constable Simon Bailey says drug use has not only remained stable, but increased in some cases.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Norwich has one of the highest heroin death rates in the country.
Now, political figures in Norfolk are calling for a radical change in drug policy – to make them legal.
“Albert Einstein once said the definition of madness was doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result,” says Lord Alan Howarth, a Labour party peer who lives in Norwich.
“My view is if you look at the history of prohibition - whether it is alcohol, Class A drugs or Class B drugs - it has not reduced consumption.
“We have to re-think it, and my view is a better way to go would be to legalise and regulate.”
Under existing UK laws, anyone found in possession of Class A drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and crack, can face up to seven years in prison.
Those involved in its supply and production could receive a life sentence.
But advocates of drug policy reform say the risk of imprisonment has not deterred users or suppliers.
They believe taking the market away from organised criminals would lead to a reduction in violence and drug-related deaths.
Those in Norfolk who want to see change in the UK's drug policy include former health minister Norman Lamb.
The North Norfolk LibDem MP claims the war on drugs has been a “catastrophic failure” that has completely failed to protect people from harm.
But the UK's Home Office has a different view. It says legalisation would send the “wrong message” to the vast majority of people who do not take drugs.
The Home Office said the current drug strategy sets out a “balanced approach” that protects the most vulnerable while tackling the illicit trade.
However, it admitted drug misuse in the UK is still at similar levels to where it was a decade ago.
Mr Howarth, who sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, said a change in culture is needed.
“People have always used mind altering substances, whether it is alcohol or dope and that will never cease to be the case,” he said.
“We need to create safer options for people to do that.
“Through legalisation and strict regulation, you would try to bring about a change in culture.
“We could make sure these substances are not cut with other dangerous substances, which I think would make it less dangerous.
“I'm not saying this is a perfect solution, but you have to look at what is the least bad solution.”
Mr Howarth stressed he was not advocating a free and easy drug culture, but was instead trying to think of better ways to support people.
He said: “It is a question of gaining more political recognition.
“But it is never top of the political agenda. It is embarrassing because people don't like admitting they have got it wrong in the past.”
Mr Howarth said he would prefer to see drug use and possession legalised, rather than decriminalised, as it would allow the government to bring in a regulatory system.
While decriminalisation means the loosening of criminal penalties around drug use and possession, legalisation would abolish laws around drugs.
His comments come as Norwich's local rehabilitation service revealed it had seen a huge influx of heroin users this last year.
Change, Grow, Live (CGL) took over the contract for drug and alcohol services from the Norfolk Recovery Partnership in April 2018.
Since then 269 heroin addicts have presented themselves for the first time in the city.
CGL refused to comment on the issue of legalisation, while chief constable Mr Bailey said he was “not going to go there” with the debate around legalisation.
“That is a conversation for politicians,” he said.
“I am here to enforce the law and it is our responsibility as a constabulary to ensure that the streets of Norfolk remain as safe as possible and that the vulnerable are not exploited.”
However, he said a conversation was needed about how to help those who are addicted to drugs.
'30 minutes to buy heroin'
Former rough sleeper Jack Edwards is no stranger to the world of Class A drugs.
For several years the 41-year-old from Norwich struggled with heroin addiction.
While he claims he is now “virtually clean” from the grip of heroin, he had been a regular user while Operation Gravity was underway.
Mr Edwards said Norfolk's police crackdown did have some impact on drug supply in the city, but claimed those being arrested were mostly low-level runners, who were addicts themselves.
“You will find the people who get arrested are the runners,” Mr Edwards said. “They are the people who have habits themselves and rather than selling their bodies or stealing from shops, they will sell drugs to cover their own addiction.
“It is the man behind the phone calls who is making money from this.
“The runners, they are the ones taking all the risks. They are being robbed and jumped by people.”
County line gangs use runners to distribute drugs outside of major cities.
They are often plucked from the care system in London and sent to counties like Norfolk as couriers.
Of the more than 1,000 people arrested by police in their effort to crack down on county lines in Norfolk, four of every five had a London address.
Two of every 10 were under 18.
Mr Edwards said escaping from the world of drugs was difficult, particularly once your mobile number had been passed to dealers.
“A lot of people will be happy to sell your number to a dealer just so they can get an extra bag,” Mr Edwards said.
“If you give your number to the wrong person, you have five to 10 dealers sending you text messages.
“It is something you can buy in half-an-hour or an hour-and-a-half [in Norwich], it just depends who that person is.”
Mr Edwards said the drug crackdowns make dealers more determined and push addicts to make stupid decisions.
He said: “Addicts will do whatever they can to source the drug. The harder it is to source it, the further lengths users will go to get it.”
Explaining why he would support legalisation, Mr Edwards said: “People would not be so embarrassed about coming forward.
“They would know there are people out there who want to help them.
“People could use drugs that are safe, rather than buying from a street dealer that puts all sorts of things mixed in.”
• Jack Edwards's name has been changed to protect his real identity.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey said despite more than 1,000 arrests under Operation Gravity, use of opiods and cocaine “is believed to have remained stable, and in some cases increased” over the last few years in Norfolk.
“There is a captive market for drug suppliers to target and there appears to be a readily available supply of drugs for users to purchase,” he said.
“Unfortunately, drugs are more accessible and affordable.
“Despite our best efforts and persistently targeting the drug suppliers to the point where we are getting significant successes every week, the fact is until such time you stop the demand, the supply is always going to be there.
“So you have to start having a different conversation as to how we help those who are addicted to get off drugs.
“I don't make the law, I enforce the law and I am frustrated that despite us investing a huge amount of effort into tackling the supply, the fact is the demand is still there, which means the supply is coming in.
“There is evidence of young people, including young girls, being coerced or threatened to work for county lines in the county, and children as young as 14 have been arrested in possession of drugs in Norfolk.
“We have 178 people in the integrated offenders management scheme, and 76pc of those have a drugs marker against their name. There is that link between prolific offending and drug use.
“We are keeping up the pressure on those groups that would seek to exploit the vulnerable in our communities.”
Drug policy elsewhere in the world
Countries and states around the world are slowly starting to change their drug policies.
In 2012 Uruguay announced it would be the first country to legalise recreational cannabis use.
The move aimed to regulate the cannabis trade and take it away from organised criminals.
Later that year, voters in Washington State and Colorado became the first in the US to support legalisation of cannabis for non-medical use.
Eight more states and Washington DC have since supported the legalisation of recreational cannabis.
A more radical approach was taken by Portugal in 2001 when it decriminalised all drugs.
While possession and drug use remain illegal, the offence changed from a criminal one to an administrative one.
The change in policy occurred alongside increased investment in the country's welfare state.
In 2014 the country's national co-ordinator on drugs and addiction said decriminalisation had halved the problem of heroin abuse since the late 1990s.
The legalisation campaign that started in Norwich
This is not the first time calls have been made from within Norfolk for drug policy reform.
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the registration of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance political party - a group that was founded in Norwich.
Two decades on and the group is still fighting for change, albeit under a new name - Clear Cannabis Law Reform.
Its president, Peter Reynolds, supports the legalisation of all drugs, but believes laws will only change around cannabis use in the future.
He said it was vital the drugs market is taken out of the hands of criminals.
“While you will never stop it completely, it would minimise harm,” he said.
“At the moment the existing [government] policy maximises harm around drugs because they have abandoned the market to criminals.
“With criminals the quality of the drug and potency is unknown, therefore the danger of the drug is maximised and there is no control who they sell it to.”
What your MPs had to say
While some of Norfolk's political figure believe a change in policy is needed, the majority of Conservative MPs disagreed legalisation or decriminalisation was the best approach.
Labour's Norwich South MP Clive Lewis said: “Across the world we've seen other governments switch from criminalisation to harm-reduction and in the UK there is backing for reform like that from the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Journal among others.
“Politicians really need to take an evidence based approach as well instead of worrying about what certain tabloids might say.”
North Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb said: “Despite significant sums of public money spent on enforcement, essentially the same amount of drugs are coming into our county - the police remove one set of criminals from the streets and they are immediately replaced by others.
“My approach would be to follow Canada's lead by introducing a legal, regulated market for cannabis, with the key aim of protecting children and young people from harm. I would also decriminalise all other drugs - in other words, stop prosecuting people for drug use and instead offer help for those suffering addiction.”
North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham, Conservative, said legalisation would risk normalising drug use.
He said: “You would save a lot of police time and pull the whole market from all of these gangs, as well as wipe out this whole area of organised crime, but I think it does come at too high a cost to the individual out there.”
Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland, said: “If I was responsible for this policy in government I would want to call in the various agencies involved and say 'okay, what are we getting right, and what are we getting wrong'.”
Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, Conservative, said legalising drug use was “far too simplistic an answer”.
She said: “I think it is better to pursue reduction of demand, including education, restriction of supply including battling globally on the supply chain, help for those who can give up and get out, and protection for all the innocent victims.”
Conservative Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis said he would not support decriminalisation.
He said: “I agree with the chief constable that more joined up working is needed to deal with the changing drugs market and the daily cycle of violence.”
South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, both Conservative, did not respond to requests for comment.