The man who loved junkies

As the drugs debate is silenced again, an old campaigner is remembered.

Rebecca Fowler
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:21

THEY will form an unlikely congregation at St Botolph's Church in East London on Wednesday. Long-term heroin addicts will sit beside pin-striped Whitehall officials at a memorial service for Bing Spear, a civil servant who crossed all the boundaries in the war against drugs.

Mr Spear retired in 1986 as head of the Home Office drugs inspectorate after a career there spanning more than 30 years - the time it has taken for heroin addiction to take hold in Britain. Just when politicians had anxiously buried the drugs legalisation debate, he will reopen it from beyond the grave.

In Mr Spear's last public statement before his death in July, aged 67, he called on politicians to rethink their entire approach to the drugs problem. He condemned the climate of caution whose latest victim was Clare Short, the Labour front-bencher silenced by Tony Blair after attempting to debate the case for the legalisation of cannabis. "Few UK politicians seem prepared to dip more than a tentative toe in the debate, far less engage in a fundamental rethink," he said.

"Most people who use drugs come to no harm. Most of the serious consequences are the result of illegality ... is there not a strong element of hypocrisy in our prevailing attitude to drugs?"

Mr Spear watched the number of heroin addicts swell under government policies that, he believed, allowed heroin supply to fall into the hands of crime syndicates. He repeatedly called for heroin to be offered to addicts on prescription, to save them from the culture of crime and the risk of HIV infection.

Bing Spear joined the Home Office Drugs Branch in 1952 as a chemistry graduate. The department had been set up to monitor the manufacture, distribution and consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. When he befriended Britain's first street addicts in the 1960s, they made up a small community revolving around a handful of maverick clinics where doctors were willing to prescribe them heroin. Mr Spear became chief inspector of the Drugs Branch in 1977. By 1984 Britain had 4,926 registered heroin addicts. Last year the figure was 10,607.

The Reverend Ken Leech, who will conduct the memorial service, worked alongside Mr Spear as a young curate in Soho. "Bing was very sad that his warnings seemed to have been ignored," he said. "Many of those who took over the drug problem didn't really know anything about it."

In the 1960s heroin addicts would gather at Piccadilly Circus just before midnight, to wait outside the late night Boots chemist clutching their heroin prescriptions ("scripts"). Mr Spear, who was known as Bing to the drug-using community, would be found here in the early hours. When addicts had no scripts he would phone around to find doctors who would write out more. He took special care of the new addicts, determined to keep them away from criminal suppliers.

"In the days when the community was small, he knew virtually all the addicts," said Mr Leech. "He knew their birthdays, where they came from, everything. They'd go and see him in his office in Whitehall, just drop in for a cup of tea."

Until the 1960s, heroin addiction was restricted to the privileged classes, including aristocrats, who had habits for 40 years supported by Harley Street doctors. Indeed it was an aristocrat who was among the most notorious GPs: Lady Frankau, who prescribed one sixth of the national total of prescribed heroin in one year, 600,000 tablets.

Between 1960 and 1965 the first working class addicts emerged. They revolved around a few London clinics, which increasingly fell into disrepute, where they knew doctors would prescribe heroin for them. "All the addicts I knew were getting their stuff from a small group of doctors, or outside Boots," Mr Leech said.

According to Mr Leech, when the New York mafia visited London in 1963 and met at the Hilton to discuss whether they should develop a drugs syndicate, they decided there was no point. Why bother when doctors were already supplying?

In 1967 the government passed legislation limiting the supply of heroin from doctors, after a series of GPs were exposed as corrupt. By 1969 the first illegal import of powder heroin reached the UK from China, and the real drugs crisis began.

Among the first heroin addicts Mr Spear and Mr Leach encountered in the East End was Kenny, who started using the drug at the age of 21. Now 56, he is a father, married to a qualified teacher, but remains an addict. He said: "There's such a big market out there now. Taking heroin away from the clinics created it. It was a different scene in the old days."

The Home Office is currently undertaking the largest-ever evaluation of the effects of different treatments of heroin addiction. It will attempt to assess the success of treatment with methadone, a heroin substitute, against the use of heroin, and detoxification.

Mr Spear still has an army of supporters, including doctors who have tried to repeat the model of prescribing rations of heroin to users. Dr John Marks, a psychiatrist working with drug addicts in Merseyside, prescribed heroin until last year, when the local health authority refused to renew his contract.

He insisted that the treatment had reduced crime, improved health and controlled the number of addicts in the area. They were redirected to other clinics and offered methadone.

"Bing believed in the humane approach, which we now seem so reluctant to offer drug addicts," Dr Marks said. "He used to call a past generation of doctors at the Maudsley Hospital the Maudsley Mafia, because some of them would rather have seen junkies die on the street than provide them with heroin."

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