First-time users of cocaine and cannabis will avoid prosecution under a national blueprint being drawn up by police chiefs to treat it as a public health problem.
People caught in possession of illegal drugs, including class A and B, for the first time would no longer be prosecuted but instead would be offered the chance to undergo education or treatment programmes.
Police would take no further action if they agreed and the drug user would avoid a criminal record under the proposals being drawn up by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Policing.
The individual could, however, be prosecuted if they failed to undergo education or treatment and were caught with drugs again.
Fourteen of the 43 police forces in England and Wales including West Midlands, Thames Valley and Durham, rated one of the most successful in Britain already operate similar schemes but the new initiative aims to establish a nationally consistent approach.
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 from foreign travel, disqualified from driving or electronically drug tagged to stop their habit.
Fall in drug offenders charged
Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, signalled a hardline approach at Tory conference, warning that cannabis use had been effectively decriminalised in parts of the country. The proportion of offenders charged for drug offences has fallen from 33.3 per cent in 2015 to 19.3 per cent in the year to June 2022.
However, in an open letter to the Government, revealed on Sunday, 500 public health and drug organisations and experts express “serious concerns” over ministers’ plans which they say would criminalise young and vulnerable people and divert valuable police resources from tackling the root of the problem.
The 500 including the Association of Directors of Public Health, Public Health Faculty, Police Foundation, and British Medical Association urge ministers to target limited resources on “health interventions proven to reduce harms” such as the 14 police force drug diversion schemes.
The letter has been coordinated by health campaign groups Release and Transform and follows findings from the police schemes that only five to 20 per cent of those who participated reoffended.
Jason Harwin, the former NPCC lead on drugs and a former deputy chief constable, who is working with the College of Policing on the new strategy, said: “We should not criminalise someone for possession of drugs. It should be diversion to other services to give them a chance to change their behaviours.”
He said Britain should be adopting schemes similar to those in countries like Portugal which directed those caught with small amounts of drugs to education or treatment programmes.
Under 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 reoffending or change behaviour by addressing the root cause of the offending.” It would not require an admission of guilt, nor leave a criminal record.
Police could prosecute for subsequent offences
Mr Harwin said a police officer could prosecute the individual for any subsequent offence or if they failed to address their behaviour in an education programme but he believed there should be scope for flexibility depending on individual circumstances. It would cover both class A (cocaine) and class B drugs (cannabis).
He believed the Government’s proposals were “too rigid” in that a first-time offender caught the following day could end up being prosecuted under the plans while the punishments such as confiscating a passport were tougher than those administered for robbery.
Prof David Strain, the chairman of the BMA board of science, said the Government’s plans appeared “to be doubling down on a failed model by promoting ever harsher sanctions that perpetuate the stigma and shame already acting as a barrier to individuals seeking help, and ultimately discouraging drug users from seeking the healthcare services they need.”
Dr Adam Holland, the chairman of the Faculty of Public Health’s drugs special interest group, said: “Drug diversion schemes are a promising route to avoid criminalising people who use drugs. Instead of arresting, prosecuting or formally charging those caught in the 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 the supply and demand for drugs, as set out in the 10-year Drug Strategy.
“Our White Paper on new, tougher penalties for drug possession set out proposals for tackling demand and we have welcomed views on this. We will be publishing our response in due course.”