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Swiftly scrapped, certainly a failure and tough to enforce - Consequences of the recent Home Office White Paper

Home office image of Swift Certain Tough

In response to the government’s recent White Paper on ‘tough consequences’ for recreational drug use, Drug Science has warned that the proposed measures are unlikely to work, and will increase the impact of institutional racism in the control of drug possession.

Ending the criminalisation of drug possession is a strategy advocated by many leading voices, including The World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Physicians and the United Nations. This can involve decriminalising drugs by removing the offence of possession from the criminal law. Another way to put these international recommendations into practice would be to promote opportunities for people caught in possession of drugs to be ‘diverted’ to health interventions.

In July 2022 the government published a White Paper entitled ‘Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession’, outlining its approach to reforming the way that the criminal justice system deals with adult drug possession offences.  The White Paper fails to mention decriminalisation or diversion schemes. Instead, it focuses on drug awareness courses, financial penalties and ‘tough’ consequences that escalate with each detected instance of possession.

The paper proposes a 3-tier approach, to be applied to all drug simple possession offences, where there is no evidence of supply, excluding those who have a drug dependence and instead need treatment.

All first-time drug possession offences will receive a tier 1 intervention, which includes attendance at a drug awareness course, for which the person will have to pay. Failure to attend the course will result in an increased fine. Failure to pay the fine may result in prosecution.

A second drug possession offence will receive a tier 2 intervention. This results in the individual being given a caution, as well as a period of mandatory drug testing alongside attendance at a further drug awareness course.

A third offence will receive a tier 3 intervention. This will involve attending and paying for yet another drug awareness course, and also receiving a Drug Rehabilitation Order. This may lead to disqualification from driving, confiscation of passports, and being tagged with a sensor that can detect drug use which means they will be charged for their offence.

The paper was open for a period of consultation, in which Drug Science submitted a response to the proposals outlined. We pointed out that there is no evidence suggesting that drug awareness courses lead to improved health outcomes. The impact of drug awareness courses on both drug use and re-offending is unknown as no studies have yet explored this. Sanctions for non-attendance of drug awareness courses will be costly and time-consuming for law enforcement, so overall, this initial response to drug possession appears misguided and potentially ineffective.

The proposed drug testing at tier 2 presents another key problem. As cannabis remains detectable in urine for longer than other drugs, mandatory drug testing provides an incentive to move away from cannabis towards other, more harmful substances (such as synthetic cannabinoids). This may push low-level users into more dangerous and risky practices.

Another key issue highlighted is the disproportionate targeting of those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, including Black and Minority Ethnic communities by law enforcement. We already know that Black communities are much more likely to be stopped and searched and arrested for drugs, with no justification for this in higher rates of drug use. The financial and other penalties enforced in all tiers will unfairly impact these communities, therefore adding to the institutional racism of drug law enforcement.

With each instance of drug possession, the consequences increase, however, there is little evidence demonstrating that the threat of punishment is a deterrent to drug use. So escalating penalties cannot be justified, especially for offences of simple possession. The white paper is based on the idea that sanctions will be ‘swift and certain’, but – with no additional investment in policing or the courts – there seems little reason to believe that the detection and punishment of drug offences will be any quicker or predictable than it is now.

Drug Science welcomes the opportunity for diversion for those caught in possession of drugs however this opportunity should be made available at all tiers – repeated drug possession may be a key indicator of a substance use problem, therefore a path out of criminal justice should be provided to people at all stages.

The criminalisation of drug possession can limit people’s employment prospects, their ability to volunteer, work in schools, and travel. The penalties proposed by this White Paper appear to far outweigh the offence of simple possession, not only negatively impacting the individual, but their families and society as a whole.

Instead, Drug Science suggests that focus should be shifted investment into liaison and diversion schemes and assertive outreach to support those with a substance use disorder.

Overall Drug Science felt that many of the paper’s proposals were not based on scientific evidence and are unlikely to improve health outcomes. A number of the suggestions appear likely to exacerbate existing discrimination within the criminal justice system, and many of the penalties seem excessive responses to simple possession.

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