Heroin addicts should receive the drug on prescription from the National Health Service to stop them stealing to feed their habit, a senior police officer has suggested.
The idea, by Howard Roberts, Deputy Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire, follows the success of schemes in Switzerland and the Netherlands in turning repeat offenders away from crime.
In Britain most users are given the heroin substitute methadone, with a few hundred being prescribed heroin a limited experiment. Mr Roberts suggested that the scheme should be expanded, arguing that addicts committed an average of 432 offences a year. Three-quarters of street robbers test positive for heroin.
He told a drugs conference: "We should actively consider prescribing diamorphine, pharmaceutical heroin, to those seriously addicted to heroin, as part of a treatment programme for addiction. There is an undeniable link between addicted offenders and appalling levels of criminality, as heroin and crack cocaine addicts commit crime, from burglary to robbery to sometimes murder, to get the money to buy drugs to satisfy their addiction."
Mr Roberts also argued that the move would be cost-effective as it would cost £12,000 a year for each addict to be treated this way under close supervision. It would be the best way to work with them to beat their addiction - and they would not be on the streets stealing to buy the drug.
"Of course, getting people off drugs altogether must be the objective," he told an Association of Chief Police Officers' conference in Manchester. "But I personally do believe we have lived with the terrible consequences of relatively uncontained addiction for far too long."
At the moment between 300 and 400 drug users receive heroin for their dependency under a joint Home Office and Department of Health pilot project in London, the South-east and the North. Addicts enrolled on the scheme inject heroin under the supervision of clinical staff. A report on the project is expected next month.
However, Professor Neil McKeganey, of the drug misuse centre at the University of Glasgow, warned the move could increase levels of addiction.
He said: "We need to be very cautious here because in effect what one is doing is rewarding addicts for their criminality."
The charity DrugScope said prescribing heroin could be effective for some addicts. Martin Barnes, its chief executive, said: "It can have health benefits for the drug user. There is compelling evidence that heroin prescribing... is cost-effective in reducing drug-related crime and other costs to communities."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Prescription of drugs to addicts is justified as long as it is part of a strategy of rehabilitation and withdrawal."
In a separate development, a government adviser has suggested that ecstasy and LSD should be downgraded from class A to class B substances.
Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the technical committee of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, told MPs it was anomalous for ecstasy and LSD to be treated by the law in the same way as heroin and crack cocaine.
Treatments for addiction
An estimated 40,000 Britons reguarly use heroin, either by injecting or smoking it.
The street price of the drug is between £30 and £100 a gram and some addicts spend as much as £15,000 a year on their habit. The most common treatment is methadone, a synthetic drug similar to heroin but less addictive.
A more expensive alternative is buprenorphine, which has been prescribed by doctors since 2001. Some private clinics prescribe naltrexone - a drug implanted in the abdomen or arm - to reduce the craving for heroin. It is not available on the National Health Service.