U.K. Police Chiefs Call for Decriminalization of First-Time Drug Offenses

U.K. police chiefs have proposed eliminating criminal penalties for first-time drug offenders who agree to complete a drug education or treatment program.

A group of police chiefs in the United Kingdom is developing a plan to effectively decriminalize the possession of drugs including cannabis and cocaine. If adopted by the government, the use and possession of small amounts of recreational drugs would be treated as a public health issue for first-time offenders, rather than a criminal offense subject to prosecution and jail time or other punishment.

The proposals, which were developed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing, would effectively decriminalize the possession of Class A drugs including cocaine and Class B substances such as marijuana. Under the plan, individuals caught with illegal drugs would be offered an opportunity to attend drug education or treatment programs, rather than being subjected to prosecution. 

Police would take no further action against those who agree to complete the program, giving them a chance to avoid a criminal record. Those who fail to complete the drug program or who are subsequently caught with illicit drugs would still be subject to criminal prosecution.

Jason Harwin, the former NPCC lead on drugs and a former deputy chief constable, is working with the College of Policing on the new partial decriminalization strategy.

“We should not criminalize someone for possession of drugs,” he said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “It should be diversion to other services to give them a chance to change their behaviors.”

Fourteen of the U.K.’s 43 police forces have already adopted policies similar to the drug decriminalization proposal from the nation’s police chiefs. But the plan is at odds with the country’s Conservative Party government, which has floated proposals to stiffen the penalties on recreational drugs including cannabis.

In October, U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman revealed that she was considering tightening the classification of cannabis under the nation’s drug laws over concerns that marijuana is a gateway drug and can lead to serious health problems. Braverman’s review followed calls from law enforcement leaders to reclassify cannabis as a Class A drug, the same category assigned to substances including heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy.

Braverman is against the decriminalization of cannabis, saying that efforts to reform cannabis policy send a “cultural” symbol that marijuana use is acceptable, according to a report from The Times. The home secretary is also concerned about evidence that cannabis use can lead to serious physical health problems including cancer and birth defects and mental health conditions including psychosis.

The more strict Class A drug designation for cannabis would make penalties for marijuana offenses more severe, including prison terms of up to seven years for possession and penalties of up to life in prison for marijuana producers and suppliers. An unidentified source close to Braverman told The Times that the home secretary believes the more severe penalties are justified because they would serve as a deterrent to cannabis use and trafficking.

“We’ve got to scare people,” she reportedly said.

In July, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel announced proposed new sanctions on users of cannabis and other drugs that include the confiscation of driver’s licenses and passports under a new three-strikes policy for illicit drug use. 

“Drugs are a scourge across society. They devastate lives and tear communities apart,” Patel said in a statement from the government. “Drug misuse puts lives at risk, fuels criminality and serious and violent crime and also results in the grotesque exploitation of young, vulnerable people.”

Under the proposal, which was detailed in a white paper drafted by the Home Office, those caught with illegal recreational drugs would face fines and mandatory drug education. They could also be banned from nightclubs and other entertainment venues.

“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,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement to the press. “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.”

But drug policy reform advocates and health professionals are resisting the government’s proposed tougher approach to drug use. On Sunday, more than 500 public and health and drug organizations issued an open letter to the U.K. government expressing “serious concerns” about the plan, which they said would likely criminalize young and vulnerable people while diverting scarce police resources from more serious problems.

Professor David Strain, the chairman of the British Medical Association’s 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.”

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