Can the UK Government Really Seize Your Passport If You Do Drugs?

We asked a human rights lawyer if you need to worry about new proposals that suggest punishing casual drug users.
Man holding four British passports
Photo: Chris Pancewicz / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government has a lot going on right now. From reports of cocaine traces in the toilets at Parliament, to a not-so-fictional COVID-19 Christmas party at 10 Downing Street,  it is safe to say things aren’t looking great for Boris Johnson.


Given all these distractions, you would be forgiven for having missed that the government announced this week a new ten-year drug plan which it said would “level up” the country by cracking down on the illegal drug trade.

The £3 billion investment plan will see national and local governments working together to break up drug supply chains, provide treatment for those struggling with addiction and to bring about a “generational shift” in the demand for drugs.

When it comes to repeat drug offenders, the government says “nothing is off the table”, which is why next year they will consider introducing harsher punishments such as curfews or even removing a person’s passport or driving license.

Another proposal involves allowing the police to contact people if their number is found in a drug dealer’s phone, which the government says will force drug users “to face up to their behaviour” by making them known to law enforcement. 

But are any of these policy recommendations workable, and how much do casual users need to worry if they’re partial to the odd line or two on a Friday night? We asked international human rights lawyer Mark Stephens CBE to clear up some misconceptions around the new proposals and whether he believes they will be effective at tackling the illegal drug trade.


VICE: Can the government legally seize your passport if you get caught doing drugs? 
Mark Stephens CBE:
They could try to make it legislation. 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 license away, that’s a secondary punishment that I think amounts to double punishment and would therefore 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.

So you don’t think there would be any way the government could make this into legislation? 
Not lawfully, no.  

And if your passport was seized, would that mean you would lose your citizenship? 
No. Your passport would be suspended so you couldn’t use it, but you wouldn’t lose your citizenship. A passport is a document by which you are permitted to travel from one country to another. Very often in totalitarian regimes like China, people’s passports get taken away but that doesn’t mean they are no longer citizens; it just means they are precluded from travel. The idea is to preclude you from moving around, internationally and domestically, or to make it more difficult. I think you should just look at the totalitarian regimes where they do that kind of thing and draw your own conclusions. 


Would it be legal for the police to text someone from a number they got from a drug dealer’s phone? 
Texting customers? Yeah, that’s legal. It’s part of law enforcement. The police already have access to the numbers on a database. I think there will be an upswing in burner phones but the police can also geo-locate the burner phones. It’s not clear yet from the proposals whether it is intended merely as a disincentive or whether they are going to pursue users as well as dealers. 

We already have a policy against small amounts of drugs not being the subject of criminal offences. Small amounts for personal use are usually not brought to court. Personal use means a non-commercial use, so you might have bought a month's supply or you might have bought enough for one reefer or something like that. There is a distinction drawn in legislation and policy at the moment on the difference between dealers and pushers and users on the other side. 

What about the plan to introduce curfews for repeat offenders?
That would be part of a sentence, so they could add that. Curfews are possible, but again they are foolish because it sort of assumes you can’t use drugs during the day. The only purpose of restricting your right to freedom is if it’s got some pressing social need, but if you’re not going to be imprisoned, what’s the pressing social need for you to be effectively locked up at home on night arrest? I think they are more likely to go down the road of making drug tests a standard thing.

Do you think these proposals will be effective for deterring drug use?
I think the proposals are ill-thought out and essentially political games-playing. Obviously, the money for reform and helping people get off drugs is very welcome. But I am not sure that these additional points are intended to be anything more than headline grabbing. They may have some chilling effect, but I don’t know that they need any more powers to achieve what they already have done. You can already take the phone of a dealer and routinely police or analyse it. It is invariably part of the process, so why do we need to have this new law when it is already something that can be done? 

Given the recent allegations surrounding drug use in Parliament, who will these proposals actually affect? 
The question is, who is it that’s going to be the focus of this? Is it going to be the toilets of 10 Downing Street or Parliament or your local hedge fund organisation or is it going to be people who are shoplifting to feed a habit? That is the sort of question you are going to have to ask yourself and how it will impact on them. This is designed, I think, to cause concern to recreational users, but I am not sure that’s exactly what they are going to achieve.