MORE THAN 500 EXPERTS IN PUBLIC HEALTH and criminal justice have signed an open letter to the Home Office, condemning proposals in the Government’s  White Paper: Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession.

Release, the drug charity which helped to rganise the letter, says that in a time where the rest of the world is moving forward, legalising cannabis and removing criminal sanctions for the possession and use of other substances, the UK is increasingly regressing.

Professor David Strain, Chair of the British Medical Association Board of Science said: “With drug related deaths in the UK increasing, the government could have chosen to use this moment to conclude that the punishment-first model is ineffective and instead to adopt an evidence based, public health attitude to illicit drug use. Alas instead with this White Paper, it appears 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.

Dr Adam Holland, Chair of the Faculty of Public Health’s Drugs Special Interest Group said: “The UK response to drugs requires an urgent overhaul. Whilst we welcome the Government’s recognition that things need to change, these proposals for escalating sanctions for drug possession are likely to increase levels of harm and exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities.The Government should instead re-orientate its approach to drugs to be consistent with the way in which we manage other public health issues, focusing on evidence-based harm reduction interventions.

“Drug diversion schemes are a promising route to avoid the negative impacts of criminalising people who use drugs. Instead of arresting, prosecuting or formally charging those caught in the possession of drugs, they are instead diverted from the criminal justice system to receive targeted education and support.

“In contrast, these Government proposals continue to emphasise the use of un-evidenced and harmful punishments in an effort to deter drug use, which will only serve to exacerbate the stigma that deters people who use drugs from seeking support. Mandatory payments for drugs awareness courses, fines for non-attendance, and other sanctions will disproportionately impact those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds and exacerbate inequalities, in conflict with the Government’s ‘Levelling up’ agenda.”

The letter reads:

We express our serious concerns over the proposals in The Home Office’s Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession White Paper released in July 2022. The 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 proposals focus on punishing ‘so-called recreational users’ who are not dependent on drugs. Targeting this large population will require a dramatic scaling up of policing, including the use of stop and search. Stop and searches for drugs already account for two-thirds of all searches, disproportionately impacting marginalised and ethnic minority communities, particularly Black people. These proposals will further undermine trust in law enforcement and already-strained community police relations.

The Home Office’s own research has stated that the £1.6 billion a year spent on drug law enforcement has little impact on drug availability. Home Office research has also concluded there are no clear links between intensity of punitive enforcement and levels of use. But punishment and criminalisation of people who use drugs has repeatedly been shown to undermine health and life opportunities of the most vulnerable individuals and communities, fuelling stigma and discrimination, and creating obstacles to proven health and social interventions.

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.

We 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. This process can usefully be informed by emerging UK and international best practice, not least the growing evidence base, and ongoing research, from existing Police diversion programmes already operating in 14 UK Police authorities.

* See a full list of signatories here.

* Sources: Release and Transform Drug Policy Foundation