Bing Spear: The Passing of A Legend
by Arnold Trebach President, Drug Policy Foundation
By now many of you have heard the sad news of the death of H.B. Spear. He died on July 9th at the age of 67. I wanted to make sure you did know of his passing, to relate a bit of his wonderful story, and to ask help in keeping alive the ideas he lived for.
For over a quarter century Bing Spear was the compassionate heart and soul of British drug control policy. He was an Inspector in the Drugs Branch of the Home Office and eventually rose to the rank of Chief Inspector, a post from which he retired in 1986. During my many visits to his office, my meanderings amongst the drug scenes of England, and in the course of lectures he made to my seminars in England, I saw that he believed in drug control with a sense of humanity and compassion. He was my mentor and my inspiration for writing about drugs in the United Kingdom.
As the top British national official expert on drug control, he served as a kindly and intelligent bridge between front line police and street addicts. Indeed, all came to him for advice. It was a startling vision for my American eyes to see the good friends he brought to several of my London seminars: long-time injecting heroin addicts. For a time Bing knew most of the established drug addicts in the London area.
It would be a sign from heaven if using addicts believed that they could go to the head of DEA or FDA to get friendly advice -- and even the name of a doctor who might prescribe injectable drugs to maintain their addictions within the law. (See the postscript for more on this subject.)
We at The Drug Policy Foundation established an award in his name in 1988. The H.B. Spear Award for Achievement in the Field of Control and Enforcement honors "all those involved in drug control and enforcement whose activities have demonstrated a balanced regard for the needs of enforcement and also of the requirement for human compassion." When I wrote him of our decision to set up the award and asked him for his permission, he replied with characteristic modesty that he really did not deserve such recognition, that all he had been doing was "keeping my bureaucratic nose clean for 34 years." He added, "I have merely been the custodian of the Rolleston tradition." All of us are better off because of the work of this mere custodian.
Expressions of sympathy may be addressed to his family at 1, Whiterock Terrace, Wadebridge, Cornwall, PL27 7EG, UK. Bing suffered from kidney disease. His son, Jonathan, mentioned that he would be pleased if those so inclined made a donation in his honor to a local or national kidney foundation.
During the next few weeks, I intend to write a longer appreciation of this wonderful human being and good friend. I intend to emphasize one of his favorite themes: how American experts and officials constantly have distorted the manner in which the British system of drug control and treatment works. I would appreciate hearing from anyone with such information and also with anecdotes on Bing's work and life.
Send them to my Compuserve address -- 102143,2571 -- or by snail mail to DPF, Suite B-500, 4455 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008-2302.
Thanks so much,
P.S. I personally saw that the following description of Bing was quite accurate. It is a quote from page 27 of the classic book by Horace Freeland Judson, "Heroin Addiction in Britain: What Americans Can Learn from the English Experience," Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York and London, 1973, 1974.
"Outside the Home Office, Spear is described as the man who for nearly two decades carried his own index in his head; even in the late `60s, when addiction was rising rapidly, he knew the addicts so well, I was told, that when a doctor with a new case telephoned him, Spear would listen to the physical description, ask a couple of questions, and identify the addict, giving his real name, his previous physician, the size of his usual prescrip- tion, the particular group of addicts he belonged to, where he lived, and, often, the girl he was living with and the person who had given him his first shot of heroin. What was even more remarkable, addicts looked on the Home Office as friend, confidant, and ally, turning to the Drugs Branch when they were in trouble with the police or at work, say, or for help when they were defeated by the social-welfare bureaucracy -- or simply to find a pharmacist outside London where prescriptions could be cashed on a holiday. The strict American parallel would be a Washington addict's coming in off the street to ask one of the assistant directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration (latest reorganization of the Bureau of Narcotics) for help in dealing with the landlord. The increased number of addicts in England today and the development of the clinics make this kind of individual contact less easy and less necessary; yet it still happens, and English addicts, though they dislike and distrust the police nearly as much as addicts anywhere -- for one thing, British laws against marijuana are toughly enforced -- still regard the Home Office Drugs Branch highly."
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