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BertBert's Story - drugs in and out of prison

This article was published in Criminal Justice Matters no 30

Alan Dearling is a Research Fellow at the University of Luton, Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, Neighbourhood and Social Change.

Effective laws are those respected and obeyed by the majority of the community. Yet growing numbers of people regularly disobey the drug laws.

The Criminal Justice System is tied up processing thousands of minor drug-related offences. Despite increased spending on enforcement, communities suffer the effects of increasing drug misuse.

We face a fundamental choice: trying to address drug misuse through more and possibly ineffective controls or stepping back to examine the law's real effectiveness.

The Misuse of Drugs Act is 26 years old. It has never been subject to comprehensive review. A concerted, expert examination is long overdue: an independent commission to examine and advise on updating current drug laws.

Standing Conference of Drug Abuse (SCODA), Point 10 of their 10 Point Plan, 1997.

Until recently, Bert was yet another prison number in Dorchester jail. He received a six month sentence on a variety of counts relating to intent to supply cannabis and cannabis resin, and possession of LSD tabs ("I'd forgotten I had them"). The sentence included one month for production - growing cannabis plants, and one month for allowing his premises to be used for drugs use. His conviction came at the end of a seven year period living in the small Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis. "I was grassed up by neighbours," Bert told me.

In the community

Bert first smoked cannabis when he was 15 and says he's been "on and off ever since." That's 32 years. He describes his pattern of drug use,

"I popped a lot of pills when I was mod in the 60's, and I used LSD in the 70's, but I feel I've outgrown it now. I like a little dabble in amphetamines. I'm not a great lover of coke, but will mix with amphetamines if offered. I've never touched heroin or opium. I'm a pretty bad asthmatic and amphetamines and cannabis help a lot with my breathing. I never need my inhaler at parties! I'm too old now to experiment with ecstasy. Alcohol is my worst drug. I become too much a complete arsehole; so anti-social."

Bert's 'pic n' mix' usage of drugs is not at all uncommon. Neither is his belief that using cannabis and 'soft' drugs is part of a lifestyle, not a crime. It is also Bert's belief that the policies and attitudes of the different local police forces are crucial in the processing of drug users. Bert says,

"Somerset police are more mellow than Dorset. They take their jobs too seriously! Up until I was about 36 or 37 I'd only had one charge for drink driving and a £2 fine in Chard (Somerset) for two-on-a-push-bike. It was about then that I left my wife and family and moved to a cottage at Windwhistle. I was picked up in Chard with some amphetamines and magic mushrooms, but only cautioned, which was quite nice. I moved again, this time to Lopen, near Crewkerne in Somerset and I was stopped. The police found some hash in my tobacco tin, but just told me to leave it at home. Soon after, there was a raid on my house, but they didn't find anything. I was then living in Chard and I got busted again. The police had been watching for six weeks and they found three-quarters of an ounce of hash. I got a fine."

"It was in about 1988-89 that I moved from Chard down to Lyme. I went to the Poll Tax demo up in London and was charged and convicted of violent disorder. I got 18 months on a first offence, and served six months in Wandsworth and six on parole. I was strip searched at the prison because of the previous drugs busts, but they didn't find anything."

At the heart of the matter of dealing in a sensible way with drugs in the community and their users are the twin problems of:

  • successive governments who wish to be seen to be giving drug users and sellers 'a hard time', and who perceive the only publicly acceptable responses are: punishment, control and enforcement, and
  • an unworkable and outdated legislative apparatus in the form of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Most of the respected researchers and writers on the misuse of drugs in the UK, such as Nigel South, Nicholas Dorn and Carol Martin have made regular pleas that harm reduction and an acceptance of a notion of "normalised drug use" (Martin, 1995) should become major planks in intervention strategies. Added to this, are the increasingly vocal opinions of senior police such as Michael O'Byrne, Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, who has called for far more resources for tackling drug distribution or for an end to police involvement. However, it still seems unlikely that there will be any swift move towards either legalisation of more drugs on the proscribed list, or decriminalisation of their use. In the wake of Clare Short's call for a more tolerant attitude towards cannabis, the Labour government still seems intent on taking a hard line against all forms of drug use, without differentiating between the levels of problem caused by the various drugs which are used. As Simon Jenkins, a member of the new Police Foundation committee of inquiry, under the chairmanship of Viscountess Runciman, wrote in The Times 27-8-97,

"The difficulty is that the present coalition of policemen, social and health workers, two thirds of voters under 25, and a myriad others who use, sell or tolerate drugs does not constitute a majority. In a democracy, majorities must be obeyed, however closed their minds."

One day later, Simon Davies made a similar plea in the Independent 28-8-97,

"Today, each weekend, at least half a million young people - typically they are employed, law abiding and middle class - take ecstasy. It may be the biggest mass drug taking experiment in history."

Simon's argument runs along the lines that recent government and police action has targeted youth culture and the places where young people meet for criminalisation.

And it's not just ecstasy. All the available statistics about the use of drugs in the community confirm that there is a rise in drug taking across the whole community and across the broad spectrum of drugs. The Health Education Authority reported the first findings from a new research survey of 5,020 households (Drugs Forum Focus, June 1997). These showed that 55% of the 16-19 age group have now used drugs at some time, compared with 46% in the 1994 British Crime Survey. The use of combinations of drugs, often called poly-drug use, is rapidly growing: cannabis with amphetamines and alcohol, or dance drugs like ecstasy and LSD with alcohol being among the favoured concoctions.

There are other indications that the Labour government is looking to extend the 'War on Drugs'. In July they announced that they were looking for applicants for a Drug Czar position, to bring co-ordination to the UK's rather sad drugs' policies. Then, at the end of August 1997, came the announcement from Health Minister, Alan Milburn, that suppliers of the drugs known as 'legal highs' will, in future, face up to two year prison sentences for selling drugs with such exotic names as 'herbal ecstasy', 'druid's fantasy' and 'road runner'. These are extensively available from head shops and festival stalls, and while hallucinogenic, they are believed to be comparatively safe. The reaction sounds like another attack of 'moral panic' unrelated to hard factual evidence of harm, or any underlying belief that any extensions to the drugs laws are enforceable.

In prison

These figures can be supplemented with findings from research in prisons. The 1994 survey in Holloway prison found that over 40% of prisoners in their research sample had previously used non-prescribed drugs, with 75% having used cannabis; 61% crack cocaine; 56% opiates; 44% barbiturates; 42% amphetamines, and 34% hallucinogenics. As ever with research based on self-disclosure interviews and questionnaires, the figures may be inaccurate, but are more likely to under-represent use rather than present an exaggeration.

In 1996, it was reported in Hansard that there were 8,120 prisoners in jail on drug offences. 1,019 for class A drugs; 7,020 class B, and 81 for class C. With longer sentences and more use of custodial sentencing the prison population looks set to include even more inmates on drugs-related charges. This is despite new Labour minister, Joyce Quinn, saying that " 'Prison Works' is just a mindless slogan" and that there is a desperate need to reduce the numbers on remand. Anthony Hewitt reported in Druglink, 1996, 11(3) the ISDD magazine, that of the 53,000 prisoners in the UK's jails, some 15% are dependent on drugs at time of receptions, and,

"as many as 70% of all prisoners will use a controlled drug at some time in custody."

SCODA have estimated that it costs £36,000 a year per person in the Criminal Justice System and they argue that treatment, prevention and education, rather than enforcement are the only pragmatic way to deal with drug misusers. Some commentators have argued that the use or abuse of drugs in itself is a crime without a victim. However, maintaining a drug habit can be an expensive affair and crimes associated with drug use are very common, whether it is theft, criminal damage or violence to others. SCODA estimate that crimes committed by drug users cost up to £864 million per year.

But, is a jail sentence for involvement with drugs a real deterrent? A second and linked question is, are the current Mandatory Drugs Tests (MDT) effective in either reducing supply or use of drugs in the UK's jails?

Returning to Bert, his observations, although anecdotal, do shed some light on current practice.

On current drug use:

"When I did time in Wandsworth in 1991, heroin and coke were treated with respect. Now there's much more use, smoking in the storeroom, exercise yard, even when there's four screws around. It was really blatant in Dorchester this year compared with Wandsworth. The prison population's got younger. The youth have got no respect. But the youth isn't treated with respect. Parents got nothing, you've got nothing, what a bum life."

"The 4's are the drug free landing, but the 2's and 3's are for getting stoned. No-one is really taking the drug testing that seriously."

On the Mandatory Drug Testing:

"On arrival I saw a nurse, she asked about medication, asked about use of drugs outside; 'What?'

I said, 'cannabis and amphetamines.'


'Last night.'

I was never tested. I decided to say 'no' to drugs at Dorchester. I did them at Wandsworth. If I'd been banged up for 6 months I'd have done some, but 13 weeks...so, MDT did work as something of a deterrent for me."

"The MDT's weren't having much effect at all on the longer term prisoners. They're younger and there was much more open use of drugs; all sorts; use of buckets, a Heinz salad cream bottle as a bong; amazing little pipes; a squeezy bottle being used as an inhaler - really ingenious."

"But Dorchester is full of scousers who'd been working in Bournemouth. All smackheads. Then there's people coming into prison, they'd only dabbled with cannabis or E or something outside, they end up getting hooked on heroin and coming out addicted to smack."

Maggy Lee, reported in Druglink, 1996, that,

"The irony is that drug testing may actually be creating a drug problem in prisons where there wasn't one before, as people switch from easily detectable cannabis, to less detectable opiates."

In Hansard 23/3/97 it was stated that errors had occurred in the first sets of performance indicator figures showing the levels of positive tests in the MDT's, and it suggested that there were no firm indications about whether cannabis use was declining or that a switch to opiates occurring.

Returning to Bert, he says about the availability of a treatment programme:

"At Dorchester there is a treatment programme, but it's for very heavy users. I said, 'I've not got a problem with drugs - you've got a problem with drugs.' If I'd been offered, in court, a programme of frequent tests while staying out, I'd have accepted that."

On dealing:

"The screws know who the dealers are. They make jokes about it. They don't do much about it. It keeps the prisoners quiet. I'd say that if they cut out the drugs testing and allowed everyone, say, an eighth of hash a week, that would pretty much cut out the heroin and methadone use. Anyway, why should the smackheads be given methadone and molly-coddled? Put them in a padded cell 'til they come down. Why should cannabis users be crucified, when smackheads are left with their crutch?"

Prison Works?

So, how is the Home Office's strategy for Tackling Drugs Together (Home Office, 1995) working?

That aimed to take action by vigorous law enforcement, accessible treatment and a new emphasis on education and crime prevention to:

  • increase the safety of communities from drug related crime;
  • reduce the acceptability of drugs to young people, and
  • reduce the health risks and other damage caused by drug misuse.

The answer is it isn't. Even Raymond Kendal, head of Interpol, has called for, "an end of prison sentences for drug use." A thorough look at the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act may lead to more positive responses to the misuse of drugs both in the community and our prisons. Criminalising drug users and increasingly extending their drug repertoire from soft drugs over to hard drugs is no answer. It may be that the pragmatic responses towards decriminalisation of soft drugs in places like Amsterdam, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Zurich and to some extent, Copenhagen, may offer some solutions, albeit, politically difficult ones.

Or, perhaps as Bert says,

"I think all drugs should be de-criminalised. Treatment shouldn't take place in prisons; move it to specialist centres in the community. Why should I change my lifestyle because they want me to? I'll change it if I want to. I'm just an old rebel!"


Davies, S (1997) The war on drugs is a dialogue of the deaf, The Independent, 28/8/97.

Dearling, A (1997) Interview with Bert, 30/7/97, personal research: Lyme Regis.

Dorn, N and Seddon, T (1995) Oh to be in England: Tackling Drugs Together in the Prison System, in Martin, C, op cit.

Ferguson, J and Feinmann, C (1995) Availability of the Performance Indicators in Tackling Drugs Together, Camden and Islington Drug Action Team: London.

Hansard written answers (16/5/97)) Prisoners (drugs), HMSO: London.

Hansard written answers (20/3/97) Prison Service Drug Testing Programme Statistics, HMSO: London.

Hewitt, A (1996) Drug Testing in Prisons, in Druglink, 1996, 11 (3). ISDD: London.

Home Office (1995) Tackling Drugs Together: A Strategy for England 1995-1998, HMSO: London.

Jenkins, S (1997) Hooked on an unworkable law, The Times 27/8/97.

Lee, M (1996) Proof Positive, in Druglink, 1996, 11 (3). ISDD: London.

Martin, C, ed.(1995) Dealing with Drugs: A new Philosophy, ISTD: London.

SCODA (1997) Drugs - A Programme of Action for the Next Century, SCODA: London

South, N (1995) New and Old Directions in current Drug Control Policy, in Martin, C, op cit.

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