Cleveland's new Police and Crime Commissioner Steve Turner has been told he is "making a mistake" by ending funding from his office for a trailblazing heroin addiction treatment (HAT) scheme.
The clinic launched in 2019. It administers medical grade heroin injections from the Foundations Medical Practice, in Acklam Road, to 'high risk' individuals with entrenched addictions with a view to reducing their reliance on street-bought heroin and steering them away from crime to pay for it.
Conservative Mr Turner has reiterated that he won't fund the Middlesbrough-based project when its current funding from the PCC runs out in September and said he had seen no actual evidence, beyond anecdotal accounts, that it had reduced crime in the town.
"Making a mistake"
Councillor Chris Jones, a Liberal Democrat who stood against Mr Turner in last week's PCC election and is also a member of Cleveland's Police and Crime Panel, says, "I think he is making a mistake to remove the funding."
Cllr Jones said he remained a great advocate for the Home Office-licensed scheme, which launched in October 2019 and was the first of its kind in the UK.
Cllr Jones says, "Mr Turner obviously doesn't think giving drug addicts heroin works and he won't be using his budget to pay for it.
"My reply to that is has the war on drugs we've been fighting for the last 50 years worked?
"I have major concerns and see the scheme as part of the solution, along with other ideas and initiatives.
"You can talk about tackling the drug dealers, but there is so much money to be made from drugs that if you take one dealer out there are five more waiting to take their position, and you are fighting a losing battle."
He adds, "The previous full-time Police and Crime Commissioner [Barry Coppinger] had the scheme funded by proceeds of crime so in fact you had crime paying to solve crime, and I thought that was fantastic.
"I've spoken to a lot of people about the scheme and they'll say 'absolutely terrible, I don't agree', but when you explain to them the mechanics of it and how many victims of crime it potentially takes out of the equation because of addicts no longer feeding their addictions, they see it from a different angle.
"You have to look at the bigger picture."
An issue for public health
Steve Turner says he did not take such decisions lightly.
He says, "I have looked at the numbers and the output of the scheme and while I absolutely appreciate how fantastically beneficial it has been to the people that have been on it, I genuinely believe it is a public health issue.
"The HAT programme when it started was controversial and it is still controversial now - the results on one hand are spectacular, but on the other hand they don't deliver from a policing perspective.
"Nobody has yet shown me a document that says crime in Middlesbrough has dropped since the scheme started.
"It seems to be based purely on speculation and what these addicts say they used to steal, and the actual statistics don't support that claim.
"Even if we were able to scale the scheme up and put the same size operation in other areas in the borough we would still be helping less than 40 people and for the same money we could put anywhere between 20 to 30 officers onto the streets of Cleveland."
The clinical lead for the HAT programme, Danny Ahmed, said he was not in a position to comment at this stage.
Mr Turner suggested the scheme could be paid for in the future by the Government-funded Project Adder, which stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery.
It was announced in January that over the next three years Middlesbrough will receive £4.5m from the scheme which aims to tackle drugs misuse and the criminal gangs who profit from the illegal trade in drugs, but also offer support to recovering addicts.
Involving Cleveland Police, Middlesbrough Council and local health services, it will see a new intensive approach, combining targeted and tougher policing, with enhanced treatment and recovery services also being provided for.
Mr Turner says, "Project Adder is Government-funded and very much public-health based, and designed for programmes like the HAT scheme.
"Just because funding is not coming via this office it does not mean there isn't funding to look at elsewhere for these schemes.
"My office will always signpost and support anybody who wants to get help in any way or any organisation that wants to deliver a scheme of that type of nature.
"It is important that we do support addicts wherever we can and there are other organisations across England that do that."
Middlesbrough has the highest rate of opioid - a class of drugs which includes heroin and strong painkillers - use in England and for every thousand people in the town it has been estimated that 21 are using heroin.
Members of Middlesbrough Council's health scrutiny panel have been examining the opioid crisis as part of a probe over the past 18 months and have urged funding for the HAT programme to be prioritised by South Tees health chiefs and kept rolling for the "foreseeable future".
They also suggested Project Adder could help cover the costs, along with funding from probation services.
The HAT programme so far
A report compiled by panel members also backed the use of drug consumption rooms, already in use elsewhere in Europe, Canada and Australia, which aim to reduce drug-related deaths by providing space for safer and more hygienic use of substances, promoting access to support and taking drug use out of public places.
There were 60 drug-related deaths in Middlesbrough between 2017 and 2019 - the second highest number in England during that period.
The HAT scheme was extended into a second year using £288,000 provided by Mr Coppinger from proceeds of crime funds, while the Durham and Tees Valley Community Rehabilitation Company agreed to contribute £50,000.
The former PCC said efforts to break the cycle of committing crime to fund addiction had failed, whether it be prison, increased sentencing or police crackdowns.
By the time the current funding ends the overall cost of the scheme will be approximately £729,000.
Fourteen people took part in the first year of the programme with a study by researchers from Teesside University stating offending had been reduced by 60 per cent among the participants.
The researchers said that prior to entering the programme the participants had accumulated 52 years of prison time between them and cost the state £4.3m, which included policing and criminal justice system costs and costs to victims through having items stolen or damaged.