West Midlands, the second largest police force in England and Wales, has become the fifth in the country to stop automatically criminalising people caught with illegal drugs.
The force joins Thames Valley, Avon and Somerset, Durham and North Wales in introducing drug decriminalisation-style policies whereby people caught with small amounts of any drug – including heroin and crack cocaine – are diverted to treatment, support and harm reduction advice instead of being arrested, punished or prosecuted.
Drug diversion schemes aim to reduce re-offending, needless criminalisation and the amount of police resources spent on low level crime.
The move, overseen by West Midlands police and crime commissioner David Jamieson, a former teacher and Labour MP, is a further scaling back by police of the war on drugs and a reflection of how forces are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with putting low level drug possession offenders through the criminal justice system.
Currently, people caught with personal amounts of illegal drugs – especially Class A drugs – are routinely taken into custody. Those charged are often fined or receive a short prison sentence. Last year 27,384 people in England and Wales were prosecuted for drug possession, 25,303 were convicted, 13,951 fined and 899 sent to prison (for an average of 14 weeks). But this process is highly costly, time-consuming and many of those punished often re-offend.
As part of the West Midlands scheme, police officers have the option to give low level drug offenders the chance of attending a drug education course or an outreach programme, rather than being formally put through the criminal justice system and receiving a criminal record. The force aims to divert 1,500 people over the 12-month pilot. It is hoped the scheme will not only reduce crime but also save the taxpayer money through cutting drug-related crime, which costs the West Midlands £1.4 billion a year.
“If we are going to break the cycle of drug-related crime, we need to look at new ways to tackle the root cause. This new scheme is tried and tested in other parts of the country and has done an excellent job in saving the taxpayer money and stopped individuals become drawn into a life of offending,” said Jamieson.
“Throughout this 12-month pilot we will continue to monitor the progress of the scheme and how well it is working to help people. We know that successful diversions away from the criminal justice system is always better and cheaper than putting people into prison or even fines which often go unpaid.”
Last year Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands police, was blasted by a hysterical Daily Mail front page for saying he did not want to charge people for cannabis possession because he did not want to ruin their life chances. It’s a criticism he appears to have ignored.
Avon and Somerset and Durham forces were the first to introduce drug diversion policies in 2016, exclusively revealed at the time by VICE News. North Wales set up a similar policy last year. North Wales and Durham forces are also running a post-arrest diversion policy for supply offences where the person is a user-dealer – most common in cases where people addicted to heroin sell just to fund their habit.
This week Thames Valley, the fifth largest force in the country, announced it would be expanding its pilot drug diversion scheme for under 18s – which has already helped 34 children – across all parts of its region.
Thames Valley has been carrying out its drug decriminalisation-style scheme since 2018. An analysis of its first pilot scheme in Berkshire found that over four months between 2018 and 2019, 55 people – mainly caught with cannabis and cocaine – were offered help rather than being arrested and prosecuted. Around half of them completed the series of harm reduction sessions, avoiding punishments such cannabis warnings, fines, cautions and criminal charges.
The scheme saved 236 hours in police time, while nearly 80 percent of those who engaged did not go on to commit further offences in the following 12 months. The analysis concluded that the scheme offered a “valuable alternative” to punishment and the stigmatisation of a formal criminal record.
Although no full evaluation of Avon and Somerset’s diversion scheme – the Drug Education Programme – has been undertaken, analysis of the 2016 pilot found participants who had attended its one-day educational drugs awareness course were less likely to re-offend compared to those who had gone through the criminal justice system.
Durham’s scheme, which allows a range of offenders including people caught with drugs to avoid prosecution if they attend rehabilitative courses, has successfully reduced re-offending rates. Under the programme, named Checkpoint, offenders are linked with a police supervisor helps them access drug addiction, mental health and housing services. So far it has resulted in a 15 percent drop in reoffending after two years for those who took part compared to those who were prosecuted.
“Police-led drug diversion schemes have developed in recognition that criminalisation does not deter use but can cause significant harms for those who are subject to criminal sanctions,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug law charity Release.
“Decriminalisation schemes reflect the evidence and experience of countries around the world that have ended criminal sanctions for possession offences, with those diverted reporting better health, social and economic outcomes,” said Eastwood. Although Portugal has the most established system of drug decriminalisation, the tactic is being used in some form in 30 countries around the world.
She continued: “It reduces the burden on police resources and reduces the risk of reoffending. We know that first entry into the criminal justice system increases further contact [with criminals], and drug possession offences are the gateway into that system. We just hope that eventually the UK government will follow the evidence on drug policy as well.”