In July this year, the UK launched a new white paper, titled “Swift, Certain, Tough: New consequences for drug possession”. The main aim of this strategy is “reducing demand for drugs and reversing the rising trend in drug use so that within a decade, overall use is at a historic 30-year low.”
The paper proposes a new 3-tier framework for people who use drugs. As cannabis is a class B drug, it will also apply to people who consume cannabis. If illegal substances are discovered in a person's possession, they may be fined or required to pay for and attend a drug awareness course, rather than being prosecuted through the criminal justice system.
For a first offence, if there is no history of offending there will be a fixed penalty notice and attendance at a drug awareness course. If the course is completed no further action will be taken. If the course is not completed an additional fine or a criminal charge is applicable.
For a second offence, diversionary caution will be given, alongside mandatory drug testing and drug awareness course. If the individual completes the course and submits a negative drug test there will be no further action. A formal charge is possible if an individual fails to complete the drug awareness course or provides a positive sample.
For a third offence, a formal court proceeding will commence. A court order may be given for mandatory attendance at a drug awareness course, other possible sanctions include an exclusion order, drug tagging and passport/driving licence confiscation. An exclusion order could see people prohibited from attending certain areas for a set period.
The report which, by its title, may seem to introduce harsher punishments for personal drug use, there is an understanding that we need to deal with these issues outside of the context of the criminal justice system.
A concern I have with the proposed system is that it will disproportionately impact those who cannot afford to pay for drug awareness courses. Research has shown that these types of policies do exactly that, with a disproportionate effect on the poorest communities and racial minorities. This will allow those fortunate enough to have the means to pay for these courses to dodge any potential punishment, while those without the means to pay will face harsher criminal punishment. Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding the Tier 2 criteria which proposes a formal charge if a urine sample tests positive for an illegal substance. Transform the Drug Policy Foundation summed the issue up in a recent article stating, " who is likely to move beyond tier 1, be criminalised, urine-tested, and subject to an additional raft of draconian new punishments? It is not going to be the ‘middle-class drug users’ that the Government seems so keen to single out, but whose drug use tends to take place with the protection that private space and privilege offers. In reality, it will be people who are already most exposed to drug policing and the glaring disproportionality in stop and search; those from economically and socially marginalised communities, and urban black youth in particular. These are also people less able to pay punitive fines or course fees, and therefore more likely to default and end up with a criminal record regardless, even from tier 1. It will be regressive in its impact on the poor and institutionalise the criminalisation of poverty."
While the paper acknowledges the need to divert the issue of personal drug possession away from the criminal justice system, it is also hypocritical in this regard. What, in the first instance is seen as a health issue with diversion, upon a third offence is a justice issue when found with drugs for personal use. Although the name and headline of the report cites "tough" consequences, there is a glimmer of hope in the paper as it aims to implement education and version into the UK's drug policy. It seems the UK government has recognised the failure of criminalisation. I am cautiously optimistic about the future of drug policy in the UK. While this is not a silver bullet, it is a step in the right direction.