New users of cocaine and cannabis will avoid prosecution under a national plan drawn up by police chiefs to treat it as a public health concern.
People caught in possession of illegal drugs, including classes A and B, would no longer be prosecuted for the first time but would be offered the opportunity to attend education or treatment programs.
The police would take no further action if they agreed and the drug user would avoid a criminal record under proposals drawn up by the National Council of Chiefs of Police and the Police College.
The individual could, however, be prosecuted if he did not undergo education or treatment and if he was again taken with drugs.
Fourteen of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, including West Midlands, Thames Valley and Durham, ranked among Britain’s top performers, already operate similar schemes, but the new initiative aims to establish an approach nationally consistent.
The move could put police and public health chiefs on a collision course with the government which has proposed a tough new ‘three strikes and out’ approach to recreational drug use that could see users banned to travel abroad, disqualified to drive or electronically tagged to quit their habit.
Decrease in the number of drug offenders charged
Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, signaled a hardline approach at the Tory conference, warning that cannabis use had effectively been decriminalized in some parts of the country. The proportion of offenders charged with drug-related offenses fell from 33.3% in 2015 to 19.3% in June 2022.
However, in an open letter to the government, revealed on Sunday, 500 public health and drugs organizations and experts express “serious concerns” about ministers’ plans which they say would criminalize young people and vulnerable people and divert from valuable police resources fighting the root of the problem.
The 500, including the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Faculty of Public Health, the Police Foundation and the British Medical Association, are urging ministers to target limited resources on ‘proven health interventions that they reduce harm,” such as the 14 police force drug diversion programs.
The letter was coordinated by health campaign groups Release and Transform and follows findings from police schemes that only 5-20% of people who participated re-offended.
Jason Harwin, the NPCC’s former drug chief and former deputy police chief, who is working with the College of Policing on the new strategy, said: ‘We shouldn’t be criminalizing someone for drug possession. This should be a diversion to other services to give them a chance to change their behaviors.
He said Britain should adopt programs similar to those in countries like Portugal which refer people caught with small amounts of drugs to education or treatment programmes.
According to the blueprint, police would use “outcome 22” for first-time offenders, where an officer would record “no further action” if there had been “action to prevent recidivism or modify behavior by addressing the root cause of the infringement”. It would not require a plea of guilt, nor leave a criminal record.
Police could prosecute for subsequent offenses
Mr Harwin said a police officer could prosecute the individual for any subsequent offenses or if he did not address his behavior through an education program, but he believed there should be a leeway depending on individual circumstances. It would cover both class A (cocaine) and class B (cannabis) drugs.
He felt the government’s proposals were ‘too rigid’ in that a first-time offender caught the next day could be prosecuted under the plans while penalties such as confiscating a passport were harsher than those administered for robbery.
Professor David Strain, chairman of the BMA’s scientific council, said the government’s plans appeared to ‘double down on a failed model by promoting ever tougher penalties which perpetuate the stigma and shame which already act as a barrier for people seeking help, and ultimately discouraging drug users from seeking the health services they need.
Dr Adam Holland, chair of the Drugs Special Interest Group at the School of Public Health, said: “Drug diversion programs are a promising avenue to avoid criminalizing people who use drugs. Instead of formally arresting, prosecuting or charging those caught in possession of drugs, they are instead diverted from the criminal justice system to receive targeted education and support.
A Home Office spokesman said: ‘Drugs ruin lives and devastate communities, which is why the government is committed to tackling both supply and demand of drugs, as set out in the ten-year drug strategy.
“Our white paper on new, tougher penalties for drug possession sets out proposals to tackle demand and we welcome views on this. We will publish our response in due course. »