The Big Question: Should police take a new approach to drug crime by relocating dealers?

By Mark Hughes,Crime Correspondent
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:08

Why are we asking this now?

A report released yesterday by the UK Drug Policy Commission paints a worrying picture of Britain's drug market. Among the key findings is the fact that nine out of 10 police and law enforcement agencies questioned said it was "unlikely" that UK drugs markets would be eradicated in the near future. The report also says that drug dealers are becoming better at avoiding having their operations shut down. It says that, even when drugs are seized and arrests made, the drug market is "quick to adapt". The report suggests moving drug dealers from residential neighbourhoods to different areas where they would cause less harm could help solve the problem. And it discusses the idea of the police opening up a dialogue with drug dealers.

How bad is Britain's drug problem?

The report follows on from figures released by the Government which revealed that the number of cocaine users in Britain has risen by 25 per cent in a year to almost one million. The figures showed that one in 10 people admitted trying the drug – three times as many as 15 years ago. More than 10m people in Britain – about 15 per cent of the population – have tried cannabis although the popularity of that drug has fallen in the past 15 years.

Although there is no way of knowing how many drug addicts there are in the UK – since only those who seek help are accounted for – the number of people taking methadone or similar substances in England is about 131,500.

What is wrong with taking drugs?

Many people who take drugs will claim that it is their own choice and, if they are not harming anyone, what is the problem? The issue is that, even if the person taking the drugs is not committing any further crimes, there is a very clear link between drugs and organised crime. In the UK, the profits made by drugs gangs allow them to channel their energies and money into more lucrative criminal enterprises, be that simply buying larger amounts of drugs or other activities such as people trafficking or firearms dealing. It also funds terror overseas. Much of the cocaine in Britain, for example, is made by south-American rebel groups who use the profits from the drug to commit further crime in their own countries.

Much more immediately though is the crime that drug addicts create in search of money to fund their habit. This will manifest itself in acquisitive crime such as theft and burglary. Many violent crimes too are carried out by those high on drugs. The latest Government figures show that 17 per cent of violent crime is committed by people under the influence of drugs.

The crime factor aside, drugs are not good for the health. Cocaine is cut with various chemicals which cannot be good for the body. It is also said to increase the risk of heart problems if used frequently, while sustained use of cannabis has been linked to symptoms of psychosis.

How are the police faring in tackling the problem?

The detection rates for drug offences in the UK have always been very high. In 2008/09, for example, of the nearly 250,000 drug offences that were committed in the UK, 95 per cent were solved. Compare this with the fact that only around 14 per cent of criminal damage offences are solved and it appears that the police are winning the war on drugs.

This is misleading, though, because while criminal damage offences will be reported by the victim and then the police attempt to solve the case, drug offences, which are mainly possession, never come to light until a victim is apprehended. Therefore police both discover and solve the crime at the same time. But it is the problems that drug addiction causes police that is more worrying – the increase in theft and other acquisitive crime.

What measures are being taken to alleviate drug-related crime?

A scheme has been running in three health districts of the UK – Maudsley in south London, Darlington and Brighton – where heroin addicts can go to a clinic and have a free shot of heroin injected. It has been running for three years and the organisers have hailed it a success. It not only means that drugs are administered in medically controlled surroundings, but that users being given free drugs have no need to steal to fund their habit. Critics say it is legalising drugs.

So should we legalise drugs?

Many have suggested doing so, saying that it would eliminate the organised crime that thrives on the money created by drug networks. But critics of the suggestion say that, without the threat of a criminal record, drugs would become socially acceptable and legalisation would encourage more people to take them.

Relocating drug dealers was portrayed in the TV series The Wire. Would it work here?

Series three of the US television series The Wire deals with the problem of drug abuse in the city of Baltimore. The sheer number of drug markets in the city means that neighbourhoods are destroyed by the trade. As a solution, drug dealers are moved to "free-zones" – areas of the city where no one lives, where they can deal drugs without the threat of arrest.

The UK Drug Policy Commission report does not explicitly suggest the creation of "free-zones", but does recommend "seeking to displace a market to another area, where it will have less impact... for instance by displacing a market from a residential area to an industrial estate. Thus the focus is not so much on reducing the amount of drug dealing but rather on reducing the harms associated with the way dealing operates in this particular area."

Such a move would certainly be desirable, especially to those living in areas blighted by drug use. But it would not provide a solution; people would still be selling and taking drugs, creating money for criminals. In fact it could exacerbate the problem – opening up a dialogue with drug dealers and moving them to another area could give them the impression that drug dealing in the new area is allowed.

Should the police talk to drug-dealers?

The UK Drug Policy Commission report cites the example of the Boston Gun Project, which saw police officers in the American city hold meetings with violent gangs. When they gave them, according to the report, "a direct, explicit warning that further violence would bring a swift and heavy response, a dramatic reduction in violent incidents was achieved".

The suggestion is that if British police met with drug dealers to warn them that they are known and will be prosecuted if they continue, a reduction in drug dealing would materialise. The problem is that drug dealers clearly already know that they face the threat of prosecution and a lengthy prison sentence if caught, yet they persist. Why would an explicit threat from a police officer make them stop?

It also raise the slightly cynical question, if the police already know who the main drug dealers in their areas are, then why not concentrate on arresting them, rather than just warning them?

Would a dialogue with dealers help to reduce drug-related offences?


* Moving drug-dealers into uninhabited areas would reduce the crime that drugs bring to neighbourhoods

* Telling drug dealers that they are known to the police could force them to desist

* The approach used so far is not working. A new tactic could be no worse than the current strategy


* Drug dealers know the risks. They will continue selling drugs regardless of any explicit threat

* Putting drug-dealers and users in a pre-designated area is giving them tacit approval to deal and take drugs

* The police's job should be to arrest criminals, not to make their illegal enterprises easier