Yard chief who believes drugs can be stopped

Anti-terrorist-style ring of steel advocated to eradicate the problem of customs evasion
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The Independent Online
The British police's foremost expert on the international drugs trade said yesterday that trafficking could be stopped "virtually altogether" but the public chose instead to accept "tolerable" levels of drug abuse.

Tony White, former head of the drugs branch of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, will today take up his new post with the United Nations, based in Vienna, where he will be responsible for reducing international drugs supply.

In an interview with The Independent, he said that British society had chosen a balance between the level of drugs-related problems and the degree of infringement of personal freedom it was prepared to accept from police and Customs officers.

Given enough resources, an island like Britain could stop the inflow of drugs by creating an anti-terrorist-style ring of steel, he said. Instead, people chose to support free-trade zones and to pass through Customs controls with minimal checks.

"It is the public who will determine what level of menace from drugs they are prepared to tolerate and what they are prepared to contribute or surrender in order to prevent the situation exceeding that level of toleration," he said.

Last week, senior police officers warned that Britain was in the midst of a heroin problem worse than it had ever experienced. They said the drug was forcing girls as young as 12 into prostitution and spawning a crime wave. Superintendent White estimated that drugs problems in Britain had already led to a "gentle backlash" in the form of workplace drug-testing and proposed drug tests on drivers.

He said such measures would have to be carefully implemented and "aimed as much towards helping individuals as punishing or stigmatising them". He added: "In recent years demand for licit drugs has risen in a similar way to demand for illicit ones and the increasing pressures and anxieties of workplaces may well have contributed to this."

Mr White, who wryly admits he has personally never smoked so much as a cigarette, has journeyed from the coca valleys of Colombia to the opium fields of the Golden Triangle to build up his encyclopaedic knowledge of international trafficking.

He is concerned that the recent pre-occupation with the concept of "organised crime" could weaken the battle against big drugs suppliers. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is setting up a national crime squad to target prominent criminals and groups of criminals.

Mr White, 52, said the fashionability of the term "organised crime" had been driven by dogma and political expediency. Big criminals could be prosecuted for drugs trafficking but not for Mafia activity.

"There is still no offence under UK statute of `being engaged in organised crime', or of `being an organised criminal'. The emphasis then should be on offences for which we may hope to apprehend, charge and convict those involved."

Mr White said attempts to defeat drugs traffickers by confiscating their assets had not lived up to expectations.

"The total amount of cash actually confiscated has been of nothing like the order envisaged and is only a tiny percentage of the profits calculated to accrue from the illicit drugs trade in the UK," he said.

Mr White said the work of financial investigation by police and Customs was usually time-consuming and costly, and suggested that the creation of a multi-agency national financial investigation and intelligence service might be more effective.

Considerable work has been done to improve relations between police and customs but rivalries remain, said Mr White, who is also to step down as a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers' sub- committee on drugs.