Hundreds of experts have signed an open letter calling on the UK Government to reconsider its planned strategy to punish members of the public who use drugs recreationally.
Signatories to the letter published by Transform Drug Policy Foundation include the NHS Addictions Provider Alliance, the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group and the Prisoners Advice Service. They and the many others who put their name to the open letter have called on drug policymakers in government to rethink their “proposed extension of punitive policing targeting people who use drugs runs contrary to the overwhelming body of evidence, and threatens to draw limited resources into policies likely to exacerbate a range of social and health harms”.
The letter is in response to a white paper, ‘Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession’, published in July ‘22 and compiled by Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s Home Office. The Government white paper lays out the framework which it says will result in “demand reduction” and is, “aimed at adults caught in possession of low levels of so-called recreational drugs”.
Another stated aim of the government is to stem what it says is a rise in drug use to a “30-year low” which it will achieve by “proposing reforms to strengthen the response of policing and the criminal justice system to drug possession offences. A new three-tier framework will apply to all drug users, except where users have a drug dependence, (described by Dame Carol Black as a chronic health condition), and treatment is the most relevant intervention. Our ambition is to bring about large-scale behaviour change and our vision is for the framework to be operated at scale with swift, clear and certain consequences”.
The ‘three-tier’ framework proposed by the white paper suggests that in the first two incidences of being caught in possession of drugs the person in question will be able to avoid court and a criminal record and receive only a fixed penalty notice or diversionary caution as a punishment. However, the person caught in possession of drugs will have to adhere to certain stipulations, such as attending educational courses and/or mandatory drug testing.
Should a person be found in possession of drugs for the third time going through the two previous tiers of education and mandatory testing, they will be forced to go through the court system and possibly ordered to wear an electronic tag. They could receive an order banning them from certain areas, and, controversially, have their passport seized and their driving licence taken away.
Mark Stephens, a lawyer who spoke to Vice said, “The problem, I think, is that this proposal falls foul of the Double Punishment rule. If you have been convicted of a drugs offence, you will be sentenced by the criminal courts. That is where you get your punishment, whether fine, imprisonment, community service or whatever it is. But if someone then seizes your passport or takes your driving licence away, that’s a secondary punishment that I think amounts to double punishment and would therefore be susceptible to challenge. When passing legislation of this kind, the minister has to sign a certificate to say it is compliant with human rights law. And it’s not, because you are not allowed to double punish.”
The five hundred who put their name to the open letter made their views on Government drug policy, “As drug related deaths reach new records, the Government should be targeting limited resources on health interventions proven to reduce harms. These proposals will do the opposite.”
Instead of the Home Office following their “chaotic” approach to drug policy, the signatories of the letter, which include prominent members of the scientific community “urge the Government to instead develop a genuinely public health centred approach. and focus on evidence-based health interventions that target those in need, while avoiding harmful punishment and criminalisation of the very groups we are seeking to support”.