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A recipe for confused policing? New drugs strategy laced with problems

Penelope Gibbs
19 Aug 2022

What is the Conservative view on recreational drugs? It seems pretty punitive and, in some ways, unconservative at the moment. Rishi Sunak has recently said “Drugs are horrific. There is nothing recreational about them. I have never taken them & I will be incredibly tough on anyone who does.”. Liz Truss appears concerned by the government of Bermuda’s attempt to legalise cannabis. Boris Johnson’s government has gone in the opposite direction from Bermuda. The Home Office slipped out a white paper entitled “Swift, Certain, Tough” in July. The proposed policies are targeted at those who use recreational drugs without actually defining what those drugs are – presumably cannabis, cocaine and party drugs such as ecstasy.

The premise of the white paper is that use of recreational drugs does harm. The drugs trade certainly does do harm, through fuelling organised crime, violence and the criminal exploitation of children. But it’s not clear that clamping down hard on the possession of recreational drugs will reduce this harm much, if at all. Other countries are reducing this harm through what many would see as a free market policy – decriminalising or legalising the use of certain drugs such as cannabis. Senior Tories have doubled down instead. The Home Office proposes every single person found with recreational drugs should get a criminal sanction, that every additional offence of drug possession should lead to an escalation of criminal penalties and that those caught with recreational drugs for a third time should face having their passport confiscated, a driving ban or similar. There are many problems with the new strategy both practical and ethical:

  • There is no evidence that the strategy will reduce use of recreational drugs by anyone, not least by the middle class party drug takers the government is targeting. In most liberal countries, a sizable minority of people use illegal drugs, regardless of the enforcement regime. The main new interventions being proposed – a shorts drugs awareness programme, escalation of penalties and punitive sanctions – are not proven to stop people taking drugs. No piloting is suggested.
  • The new strategy cuts across another new government strategy on out of court disposals, which has only just been passed in parliament. The new recreational drugs strategy proposes a new fixed penalty fine when the fixed penalty has just been abolished. The three tier recreational drugs strategy has completely different stages to the two tier plus community resolution out of court disposal strategy just approved by parliament. This is a recipe for confused police enforcement.
  • Police discretion is essential to effectively resolving crime without going to court. But this strategy sidelines police judgement and pretends that one size fits all. This is inequitable and misguided. There are many different kinds of drug takers and different motivations for taking recreational drugs. Why should a police officer be given considerable freedom to choose how to deal with an incident of criminal damage but none when it comes to drugs possession?
  • The policies are supposed to target middle class recreational drug users, but they are more likely to sweep black and poor people into the criminal justice system. Poorer communities are more likely to be subject to stop and search and thus be accused of possession. Middle class users are less visible to the police since they tend to buy and use their drugs behind closed doors.
  • The new strategy is likely to lead to thousands of young people being criminalised and gaining lifelong criminal records. Currently nearly half of all those arrested for possession of cannabis are given a community resolution (the lowest category of out of court disposal), and no further action is taken in 17% of cases. So the majority of those arrested for possession of recreational drugs currently do not get a criminal record. The new sanctions “ladder” will lead to many more people getting formal criminal sanctions.

Do the Conservatives think being tough on recreational drugs is a vote-winner? If so, they may be misinformed. Recent research suggests most voters do not support possession of cannabis being a criminal offence. In a recent You Gov poll 38% of people thought such drugs should be legalised and 21% that they should be decriminalised.

I’ve spoken to many police officers who are uneasy about these proposals, both because of the challenge of introducing a new system and because many are sceptical that criminal punishment works to reduce drug use or drug crime. Let’s hope wise counsel will prevail.