There have been calls to decriminalise some drugs in Blackpool, as a health chief in the resort said the war on illegal substances is failing.
Dr Arif Rajpura, the town’s director of public health, said the UK should follow the lead of countries such as Portugal and Canada by treating drug users as addicts who need medical help instead of criminals who need locking up.
Admitting he was voicing his own views and not the council’s, Dr Rajpura said: “The war on drugs has not worked anywhere in the world. We need to look at different ways of dealing with drugs. Some other countries have decriminalised drugs, regulated them, and put controls on them.
“I think this country needs to think about alternative approaches because what we have done in the past hasn’t worked. We could learn a lot from these countries, taking the criminality out of it and dealing with it as a health issue.”
Dr Rajpura’s remarks came at a meeting of the council’s Adult Social Care and Health Scrutiny Committee, following comments made by Claremont councillor Lynn Williams.
She said police officers had told her class B drugs, such as former legal high Spice, were becoming easier to deal and more prevalent in society.
On Wednesday, it became legal to buy recreational cannabis in Canada.
Some states in America have also decriminalised it for over-21s, while Spain and Portugal have adopted a more liberal attitude. It has been legal in Uruguay since 2013, while Norway last year said it would decriminalise cannabis for personal use.
In Portugal, possession of any drug, including cocaine and heroin, is legal as long as the amount does not exceed a 10-day personal supply.
Instead of arrest, users are offered support services and treatment.
Blackpool Council’s health boss, Coun Amy Cross, said the town’s problems with beggars was linked to street dealing of drugs such as Spice.
She said: “We have a problem with people on the streets at the moment who are begging and homeless.
“But part of the problem is with drug gangs who are bringing homeless people from their area, asking them to beg for money and they are handing that over and in return being given Spice.
“If we went down the decriminalisation route, it would stop this. It would take the criminal element out.”
Mark Butcher, who founded Blackpool soup kitchen Amazing Graze, said he agreed with the idea of decriminalisation.
He said: “We are making some of the most vulnerable people in society criminals.
“It is an addiction, just like people have an addiction to cigarettes or alcohol.
“Do we make alcoholics criminals?
“Canada and Portugal are showing the lead to the rest of the world.
“There is some evidence to back up making it a health issue rather than a criminal one. Portugal had a one per cent of its population addicted to heroin 15 years ago. First of all they decriminalised it and then they offered support to the addicts.
“They gave them a controlled supply of heroin and clean needles and stabilised the problem.
“They engaged with them and got them back into work, gave them jobs. It was quite radical but it worked.
“It’s too political at the very top to do it.”
He said he understood some people might be alarmed by the thought of decriminalising such drugs, but said it did not mean use would soar.
He said: “Decriminalising is not the same as legalising. I am talking about heroin and crack cocaine, not Spice.
“It would give services the chance to properly engage with addicts, because at the moment they have to hide away. We could then offer solutions, rehabilitation, support education, and training.
“It would get these vulnerable people out of the hand of the criminal element. If you owe money to a dealer they beat you up and then make you work for them, dealing drugs or in prostitution to pay them back. Addicts are victims themselves. We should treat addicts like suffering patients.”
But he accepted the Spice problem was more serious, saying he had heard of dealers putting beggars on streets and taking their money in return for the once-legal drug – but warned against victimising the homeless.
“They take drugs because of the situation they are in and to get rid of the feeling of self loathing. If you are ignored by 1,000 people a day you feel invisible and worthless. Spice is like our version of the USA’s problems with crystal meth. It is so strong. I have seen people coming out of prison addicted and have seen heroin addicts, that I have known for years, forget they are heroin addicts because they are now on Spice.”
‘No end to Spice scourge in Blackpool
Earlier this year, The Gazette covered ongoing concerns about the impact Spice – which turns users in ‘zombies’ – is having on Blackpool.
Concerns were raised about its increased use among the resort’s homeless and desperate after users were pictured slumped senseless in the streets in broad daylight.
The former legal synthetic drug was freely available in shops and online before being outlawed, but is still widely available for as little as fiver, it was reported in July.
Chief Insp Lee Wilson, of Blackpool Police, said at the time: “Spice has been an issue nationally for several years now following the increase in availability of legal highs.
“However since December 2016, it has been illegal to possess for supply or sell Spice.
“These substances are dangerous and if you take something which is not natural, the effects can be incredibly damaging.
“Our advice remains that people should not take them as they simply have no idea what they could contain or the health risks involved.
“We recognise the often bizarre behaviours exhibited by some of those under the influence of Spice can be concerning and intimidating for residents and holidaymakers.
“We are working with our partners both supporting these individuals and taking enforcement action where appropriate against those peddling this misery. We are committed to keeping the town safe and will continue to do so.
“The work we are engaging in with our partners, including the town’s local health authority, leads us to believe that there is no immediate cause for concern and that the issue in Blackpool relating to the use of Spice is no greater than elsewhere in the country.”
What has Canada done?
This week, Canada decided to replace cannabis prohibition with a system of “strict regulatory control” in a bid to keep the drug out of the hands of minors and reduce health and social harms related to its use.
It has become the second country after Uruguay to legalise possession and use of recreational cannabis.
Medical marijuana has been legal in the country since 2001.
Users must be 18 or 19 and must not sell to minors.
They are limited to the number of plants they can grow, and can only have 30 grams on them in public at any time.
Not everyone was in favour of the move. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a story calling the move “a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians”.
The law on drugs in the UK
Having a class A drug comes with a potential seven year prison term and unlimited fine, while supply it can end in a life term behind bars. Class A drugs include crack cocaine, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, magic mushrooms, and methamphetamine (crystal meth).
Having a class B drug comes with a maximum prison sentence of up to seven years inside, while supplying comes with a maximum life sentence. Class B drugs include amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, ketamine.
Class C drugs come with a maximum of two years in prison for possession and 14 for supplying. They include anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, GHB, and khat.