Obituary: Bing Spear

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When Bing Spear joined the Dangerous Drugs Branch of the Home Office in 1952, the Chief Inspector had been there since the 1920s and the work consisted primarily of inspecting pharmaceutical firms, with the very occasional excitement of an interview with an addicted doctor.

Then there were only a few hundred addicts in Britain, and they were almost without exception people who had professional access to addictive drugs (doctors, pharmacists, etc) or who had become addicted as the result of medical treatment. When Spear retired 34 years later in 1986, drug addiction and abuse had become a matter of huge public concern and government response.

After completing his National Service Spear joined the Civil Service as an Inspector in the Dangerous Drugs Branch of the Home Office. The branch was peculiar in that it recruited its inspectors from outside the Civil Service and there was no promotion route into the main Civil Service, so there was little turnover of staff. There were five inspectors whose job was to monitor the manufacture, distribution and consumption of drugs like heroin and cocaine that were controlled under the Dangerous Drugs Acts.

Spear exercised a crucially moderating influence within the Home Office from a position of little formal power. He was constantly out and about in the West End of London when ''street addicts'' were beginning to appear and made it his business to get to know them. Despite his impeccably quiet civil service manner, he gained their trust and respect and was often the first person they would turn to for advice and help. As the problem grew, he acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the situation on the ground and of everyone involved: addicts, doctors, voluntary bodies, government officials in other departments, police and customs officers.

With very few exceptions, doctors and policemen in the Sixties and early Seventies found the drug problem professionally uninteresting; Bing Spear at the Home Office provided the knowledge and understanding which ensured that policies were not completely out of touch with practical reality. While to the addicts he seemed a quiet civil servant, to his colleagues he was a fiery passionate advocate of humane pragmatic solutions which to his regret were too infrequently adopted. American drug experts looking for alternatives to the United States' draconian yet ineffective treatment of addicts saw in Spear the embodiment of what they called the ''British system'', the provision of ''customer-friendly'' social and medical support for addicts in a setting of firmly proscriptive laws against drug abuse.

After he retired in 1986, the US Drug Policy Foundation inaugurated an annual Bing Spear Award for outstanding contributions towards saner drug policies. The first recipient was Spear himself. At the time of his death he had all but finished writing an account of the development of British policy on addictive drugs which hopefully will enable future drug policy makers to benefit from his unique experience and vision.

Jasper Woodcock

Henry Bryan (''Bing'') Spear: born Wadebridge, Cornwall 6 July 1928; Inspector, Home Office Drugs Branch, 1952-65; Deputy Chief Inspector, 1965-77; Chief Inspector, 1977-86; married Ella Wood (three sons); died Truro, Cornwall 9 July 1995.

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