Chooper's Guide ... the Internet's most comprehensive substance abuse treatment, prevention and intervention resource directory.

A former undercover police officer explains why criminalising drug users isn't working


In Liverpool, during the early 1990s, Dr. John Marks used a special Home Office license to prescribe heroin to addicts. Police reported a 96% reduction in acquisitive crime among a group of addict patients. Deaths from locally acquired HIV infection and drug-related overdoses fell to zero. But, under intense pressure from the government, the project was closed down. In its 10 years' work, not one of its patients had died. In the first two years after it was closed, 41 died.


Neil Woods: In the UK we used to lead the world in drug policy. It was called the British system, and it was a fairly simple premise - if someone has a problem with drugs, they get medical help. 

That British system was destroyed by American moral imperialism. American foreign policy insisted that everyone follow their lead in how to deal with drugs, and that meant criminalizing people. 

The last breaths of the British system were from a doctor called John Marks, who at the height of the heroin explosion, took over clinics in the Wirral and Warrington. And he continued to prescribe heroin to those people who needed it. Now the effect there was startling and the evidence outstanding, because all the gangsters who were dealing - they left. They went away to Liverpool because they had no customers. 

None of his patients died. Some of them got jobs, and a lot of them went successfully into treatment because if you're not spending all your time thinking about how you're going to pay for your next fix, you do have time to think about other things. 

John Marks did that for a decade, and when he published the evidence from that, the American government insisted to the British government that that end. On the other hand, the Swiss government looked at that evidence and used it to inform their entire policy. And in Switzerland, they still prescribe heroin to this day. From the moment they did that in Switzerland, their burglaries were cut in half. 

But it is clear from all of the problematic heroin users I've known - and I've known a lot - the one thing that is very clear to me is that they all have some real, genuine mental health problem, and two-thirds of them are self-medicating for childhood trauma, including childhood sexual or physical abuse. 

It's not just me that says that - there are 20 independent academic studies which have come up with the same numbers. Drug policy at the moment is about criminalizing people. So it's time to stop treating people as criminals, and it's time to start caring for them. 

I don't think an evidence-based drug policy is too much to ask for, and certainly, we should take pride and go back to the British system.