Under a plan pushed by new police Inspector Andy Gilhooley, Edinburgh, Scotland police could be told not to arrest people for small-time drug possession in the city center. But if a legion of critics have their way, that pragmatic approach may never see the light of day.
Gilhooley, who just took charge of the central policing team at the West End station, briefed officers on his proposal last week. Under the plan, people carrying small quantities of drugs would simply have them confiscated. Similarly, staff at pubs and clubs would be told not to call police when they find drugs, but to seize them and store them in a sealed container until police could collect them at a later date.
"If someone is caught with Â£2 of a drug, is arresting that person the best use of police time? This is something that has happened in various UK cities and we are now looking at it. We're looking for best working practice," Gilhooley said in remarks reported by The Scotsman. "I'm interested in keeping officers on the streets rather than having them distracted for several hours to deal with someone caught with a small amount of drugs. We have a responsibility to provide a high-visibility presence. That's one measure we're considering to see if it's worth pursuing. Is it worth it? My personal answer is that yes, it is worth pursuing."
But at least one of the officers he briefed didn't think so and went running to the press, exciting a storm of opposition to the proposal in the process. "This would be aimed at stopping officers being tied up for hours with drug arrests," said the nameless officer. "But it leaves officers open to complaints they have taken drugs off someone and 'where did they go?' It's a trap door for police," he whined. "And once the word goes out that carrying drugs in the city center will only result in confiscation, that will have an impact."
After The Scotsman's initial report, the critics piled on. In the newspaper's Tuesday edition, the story on the affair was titled "Fury At Police Suggestion of Drugs Tolerance Zone for Capital City Center", and concern about sending wrong messages was the trope of the day.
The move "sends the wrong message," said Labor Party justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeill. "I understand the officer's desire to have more visibility in the streets. That's what people want. But this isn't the way to do it."
"This sends a disastrous message," said Bill Aitken, the Scottish Tories' justice spokesman. "A zero-tolerance approach needs to be followed or Scotland's drug problems will get even worse."
Even Glasgow University drug use researcher Neil McKeganey, who usually spends his time hunting for signs of mental illness among pot smokers, chimed in. The police proposal was "extraordinary," he said. "If one wanted to turn Edinburgh city center into a drugs fair, this is how to do it."
Local officials, however, were more willing to give the idea some consideration. Tory Councillor Joanna Mowat, who sits on the police board, gave a "cautious welcome" to the idea. "I think this could be a pragmatic approach," she said.
While Councillor Iain Whyte pronounced himself "concerned" that he had not heard of the idea before reading about it in The Scotsman and predicted the plan would win little public favor, he was willing to consider it. "I would be concerned to think that we encourage door staff to confiscate drugs when we can't be sure where they would end up," he said. "I'm sure most members of the public would also be concerned about any idea of a drug tolerance zone in the city centre. But at the same time we do want to see more police out and about. I would hope the police will consult widely on this and I would like to hear from the Chief Constable about this at our next board meeting."
It remains to be seen if the Lothian and Borders Police will follow-up on the proposal, given the harsh reaction so far. By Tuesday, the department was already back-pedaling. "The idea was raised at an informal police briefing, where staff were encouraged to think about ways in which we could be more sophisticated in our approach to policing in the city center," a department spokesman said. "This was merely a discussion point, and we have no plans to take this suggestion further. Our focus mains on providing the highest levels of policing."
And if that requires refocusing police attention away from small-time drug offenders? Stay tuned to find out if the Scottish police have the courage of at least one of their chiefs' convictions.