Bristol and Durham Show UK First Steps Towards Drug Decriminalisation

by Calum Armstrong

An exclusive report from Vice revealed last week that UK police are no longer intent on processing those caught with small, personal amounts of certain drugs, including cocaine and heroin, through the criminal justice system.

Police forces in Durham and Avon & Somerset have been operating pilot schemes where those caught in possession of drugs are diverted to local drug education workshops, rather than being prosecuted.

In Bristol, where Avon and Somerset’s Drug Education Programme has been running since April, 215 people caught in possession of drugs – an offence with a maximum sentence of seven years – have been offered an alternative to receiving a criminal record and court summons. Instead, drug users can attend a three-and-a-half hour drug education workshop run by a local drug service. If the workshop is successfully completed, those caught with drugs receive a letter confirming that their drug possession offence has been dropped. Anyone can be offered the diversion, regardless of their past criminal record, including previous cannabis warnings and drug convictions.

According to Vice, these measures ‘could mark the first step towards the decriminalisation of drugs in Britain’. Indeed, such schemes reduce the numbers of those left burdened with criminal records, easing the pressure on the UK’s judicial system as a result.

[READ] Vice‘s Max Daly pens his debut feature for VolteFace: What’s in a Word? Inventing the ‘Drug’ Problem

Police forces report that approximately 80% of those offered the ‘diversion’ scheme, as an alternative to prosecution, accepted and later completed the drug education course.

in a statement to VolteFace, Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at drug policy think tank Transform, welcomed the news:

These developments, regardless of any imperfections in the individual programs, reflect the progress in the national and international debate on ending the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and that can only be a good thing. Hopefully the leadership being shown by these police authorities – and the evidence that emerges from them – will encourage the Government to remove its head from the sand and actually bring forward legislation to decriminalise nationally.

It is a move that now has a strong evidence base from around the world, and has been recommended by the ACMD, the Royal Society for Public Health, most major UK drug service providers, as well as having cross-cutting support from United Nations agencies including from the World Health Organisation. Polling shows a high-level public support – so it’s not even a political liability anymore. It would be great if the government would actually show leadership on this – rather than have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world.

We will be keeping you updated on this story as it develops.

Words by Calum Armstrong tweets @vf_calum

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