Britain’s youngest candidate for police and crime commissioner has a radical plan for slashing drug crime – stop prosecuting drug users. Ben Twomey is standing as an independent in Warwickshire and, although he’s only 22 years old, observers are already saying that he may be one of the best qualified candidates in the country.
Twomey is a protégé of Durham commissioner Ron Hogg, who weathered a tabloid storm last summer when it emerged his office had told the local cannabis club not to worry about being arrested for smoking or growing weed. Soon after, Hogg’s policy was vindicated when Durham constabulary was rated the country’s top force.
Now Rugby-born Twomey wants to take that radical plan to his home county. And with other PCC candidates up and down the country singing from a similar hymn sheet, it could be that the first progress towards an evidence-based drugs policy will come despite the government refusing to budge on the issue.
“I’m talking about refocusing drug policy, and I’m talking about supporting those in addiction and tackling those who are profiting from misery – organised criminals,” Twomey said. “People are concerned with dealers, that’s the main thing. I want to get away from the dealing culture, but I don’t want to persecute those that are possessing their own drugs.”
Introduced by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2013, the role of PCC may have been a ruse to deflect blame for swingeing cuts to police budgets. But the implications of handing over so much power to locally elected officials became clear last summer, when Hogg said his officers had more important priorities than chasing small-scale dope growers. Five other forces have since publicly admitted that they follow the same model.
Twomey was the drugs and alcohol policy lead in Hogg’s office who helped to develop the plan. Fresh out of university, where he specialised in drug policy, he liaised between officers, officials and harm-reduction services. He was also the first to get in touch with Durham’s local cannabis social club.
“I’ve never spoken to anyone that is so passionate about keeping organised crime out of the cannabis market as someone in that cannabis club, which no politician would ever expect because they never speak to these people,” Twomey said.
“They were all about, if people need medicinal marijuana, they would get it to them. If people want to learn to grow themselves so that they don’t have to keep going out to a dealer and funding whatever goes up the chain, they they will want to do that as well.
“So in a way they have created their own methods or their own means of trying to keep organised crime out of the cannabis market while they were still being persecuted or pursued. Luckily that’s all changed in Durham. The de-prioritisation makes that space where it can happen.”
The Durham scheme is about more than letting weed smokers off with a tut-tut, although that’s the part that garnered headlines. It was initially focused on heroin users, through what the force calls the Checkpoint Scheme. Problem drug users that are caught committing low-level crime are offered treatment and an opportunity to give back to the community instead of facing prosecution. It’s a last chance: if they slip back into crime, it’s straight to court. But it’s the opportunity some need to turn their lives around, and it gives police the space to tackle dealers and organised criminals. Such a scheme would be a cornerstone of Twomey’s policy in Warwickshire.
But like Hogg, Twomey insists that his policies fall far short of decriminalisation. Instead he hopes to take advantage of what he sees as “wriggle room” in a debate that has hitherto been polarised between all-out prohibition and a drugs free-for-all.
“The difficult thing with decriminalisation is that you are decriminalising possession but you’ve still got an illegal market that these people are paying into,” Twomey said. “I haven’t mentioned really the words decriminalisation or legalisation in what I’m saying during this campaign, just because it puts people off or alarm bells ring. What I’m really focusing on is supporting those in addiction.
“In terms of social supply and things like that, if it’s people that are trying to keep organised crime out of their drug use, habits or lifestyle choices then I fully endorse that. In an ideal world none of us are going to use harmful drugs, but people who use drugs are going to use drugs regardless of the level of enforcement.”
Among Britain’s PCC candidates – the porcine former police officers, bland Westminster-lite apparatchiks and Ukippers with small faces – Twomey looks like the work experience boy. Indeed it’s not that long since he was the work experience boy. But that still gives him more experience than many of his rivals. After unpaid stints during his degree, then four months in Hogg’s office, he most recently he worked as head of organised crime, youth engagement and police ICT in Warwickshire – the very office he’s now seeking to run. He says his work has given him a special insight in to the potential of the position.
“The police and crime commissioner role is undersold, in a way, not least of all because so many candidates seem to forget that it involves things other than the police,” Twomey said. “So they get hung up on the idea that it’s just controlling the police force, but it’s not at all.”
Twomey’s core approach is to focus on the causes of crime, trying to stop crimes before they happen rather than pick up the pieces after. To this end, he says he would use the powers and budget of the commissioner’s office to strengthen community engagement, provide support services for those at risk of drifting into crime, and make restorative justice a part of any eventual punitive measures that may be needed. His credo is that no child is born a criminal, and effective intervention can stop them becoming one.
“The outcome focus for other candidates is more visible policing which just doesn’t really achieve anything in the long run,” Twomey said. “So if I have the outcome focus of fewer criminals then we start to just completely change the debate.”