Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Will new approach help win battle against drugs?

The PSNI has scrapped its Drug Squad and merged it with its Organised Crime Branch in a move that Malachi O'Doherty argues could help properly address our drug problem

One theory of how we should police drug use says we shouldn't bother. More lives would be saved if all dangerous drugs were legalised. That would take the profits out of the hands of gangsters and smugglers.

It would also provide opportunities for quality control and thereby reduce overdoses and deaths caused by pollutants.

But that idea is going nowhere, probably because it would have to be applied worldwide to work. Any country that broke ranks on the war on drugs would find itself inundated with drug tourists, much as Amsterdam has been through its cafes selling cannabis.

And where that would be remunerative it might be unsightly.

But the PSNI has decided to make a marked change in its approach to the policing of the drugs trade. Uniquely among British police forces it has scrapped its Drug Squad and merged it with Organised Crime Branch.

This appears a little experimental. It also seems untimely, given that the new Chief Constable Matt Baggott has hardly warmed his seat.

But will it work? Well, when it comes to fighting drugs, nothing works. Drugs are in our housing estates and in our prisons. A report this week says that children here are more likely to have used cannabis than in any other part of the UK.

Visitors to prisons north and south go through similar searches, having to stand at a spot in a room while a dog sniffs them intimately. When the dog reacts to drugs concealed on the person of the visitor, that visitor is then either barred from the visiting area of the prison or, in Mountjoy, is directed towards a screened visit. The one thing that does not happen is that the visitor is searched.

The supposed drugs courier may be in a confined space and surrounded by uniformed officers and dogs, but no attempt at an arrest is made. This reflects an official understanding that drugs are a way of life here and that seeking out and detaining ordinary users is a waste of time and resources.

The PSNI says that the absorption of the Drug Squad into broader crime investigation will help in the policing of the other activities of the drugs barons, their money laundering and their criminal empires.

The biggest problem around drugs use is the crime that accompanies the trade.

The money which the dealers take has to be filtered somehow into legally defensible channels and this is harder now that property can be confiscated and the onus of proof that it was legally bought is on the owner.

Several big criminals have lost houses over this. Critics will say that this amounts to a tax on crime and even provides an incentive to the state to allow the criminals to stay in action, since they can be fleeced like this over and over again.

The state gets its cut. And violence and the threat of violence always go along with gun crime, for debts are incurred and have to be paid.

Enforcers have to be employed to collect those debts and, to a far greater extent in Dublin than in the north, hired killers are used to avenge bad debts and weed out rivals.

The kids dancing in clubs with their heads full of ecstasy or blow may feel that the whole world is just perfectly lovely, but behind them is a supply chain that is criminal and violent.

The new approach of the PSNI signals that the main concern of the police will be to catch and nail the big dealers, and few would quibble with that as the appropriate focus.

That should also suit the new Chief Constable who took pride in his battle against drugs and gun crime on his last patch, Leicester. The change is perhaps also in line with a policing strategy which is concerned to work with communities rather than against them.

The typical drug squad officer didn't look like a police officer because she or he was essentially a spy, an intelligence operative. They had long hair; they had to look credible on the drugs scene where appearance and a grasp of patois count for a lot.

And if the shift is real, then it has to include high-end policing against gangsters but also a compassionate and practical approach to drug users.

And the new Chief Constable's last patch, Leicester, seems to know better than we do how to manage that.

The region is proud of its Drug and Alcohol Action Teams which combine social services, voluntary groups and the police in a strategy which has increased the availability of help to abusers and cut down waiting times for treatment.

Nothing is going to eradicate drug use and drug crime, but if the absorption of the Drug Squad into broader criminal investigation signals a division of approaches, separating the harrassment of dealers from assistance to addicts, then that makes sense.

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