Why Did the British Police Ease Off on Drug Offenses in 2015?

While the government drew up new counterproductive drug legislation, police officers around Britain took it upon themselves to react against the war on drugs.
Max Daly
London, United Kingdom
December 28, 2015, 5:00am

A selection of legal highs in the government's NPS test lab (Photo by Rob McCallum)

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In some ways, 2015 was a very normal year in Britain's drug world. Prisoners got wasted on the latest substance that couldn't be picked up by random jail drug tests, clubbers fell in love with E again and the media found a new drug to freak out about. Meanwhile, drug users continued to die in record numbers from overdoses.

But amid all the usual happenings, tensions began to quietly play out between those who come up with drug policy and those who enforce it: the government got itself in a muddle working out what it actually means to get high, while the police came to the conclusion that chasing people for drugs was not only futile but largely counterproductive.

Announced in the Queen's Speech in May, the Psychoactive Substance Bill 2015 was drawn up for a logical reason: The government could not ignore the fact there were shops selling powerful drugs—your Gocaines, your El Blancos, your Psy-clones—to people on Britain's main streets.

But in trying to tackle this problem, Home Secretary Theresa May appeared to have entered a scientific and philosophical hall of mirrors, in which she got so bamboozled by the complexities of human intoxication that she stumbled out and decided it was best to ban anything that affects a person's "mental functioning or emotional state," be it harmless or not (as long as it's not something not worth millions of pounds to the Treasury, such as alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine).

So when the Bill is enacted in April of next year, nutmeg, nitrous oxide, poppers, and a host of mildly psychoactive garden centre products such as morning glory seeds—as well as substances that haven't been invented or discovered yet—will likely be outlawed alongside the potent synthetic drugs that were the original targets of the legislation. However, the government has accepted that personal possession of the newly-banned drugs will not be an offense because it would criminalize otherwise law-abiding people.

Yet, as the government tries to ban its way out of a hole, while still parroting the fact it would not touch decriminalization of old-school drugs with a bargepole, its street-level enforcers appear to be edging away from the war on drugs.

In July, three police forces—Durham, Derbyshire, and Dorset—declared they were not going to bother pursuing cannabis smokers, nor people found cultivating a small number of cannabis plants (an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years). They said there were more important things to be doing with limited resources.

While there are still ridiculous, Gulf State-style cases where people are being slapped with a criminal record for possession of barely enough cannabis to make a spliff, there is evidence to show that these three forces are not the only ones briefing their officers to ignore low-level drug offenses.

Despite steady levels of cannabis use over the past four years—and the fact it's not exactly hard to detect people smoking skunk in public—the number of people being booked for weed possession has fallen by almost a third over that time, from 145,400 in 2011-12 to 101,905 in 2014-15.

Cannabis warnings (the first stage of enforcement action) have fallen too, from over 100,000 issued in 2009 to 60,000 in 2014. Penalty Notices for Disorder (on the spot fines commonly used for the crime of cannabis possession) fell from 16,277 to 11,417. What's more, over the last year, there has been a 17 percent drop in police raids on cannabis farms and a fall in the number of people cautioned and prosecuted for cannabis cultivation.

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Cannabis is not the only drug police are walking past. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of cautions handed out for all drug offenses fell by over a third, down from 42,700 to 29,600. This included a fall in cautions for class A drugs. Drug prosecutions and convictions have fallen across the board, and it's unlikely that this is down to criminals becoming more cunning.

What's more, there are signs the police have eased off chasing down the big guys. The number of surveillance operations carried out by police, such as phone taps, bugging, lengthy stake-outs and undercover work—many of which are used to catch drug dealers—has fallen, from 14,000 in 2011 to 8,300 in 2015. The use of informers, another tactic used to catch drug dealers, has also plummeted.

So what is going on? Are Britain's cops, who aren't well known for going easy on drug users, revolting against the war on drugs? To some extent, according to Gavin Thomas, Vice President of the Police Superintendent's Association of England, they are.

"The approach by forces such as Dorset, Durham, and Derbyshire are becoming more widespread in my experience," Thomas told me. "Arresting large numbers of people for possession of drugs will not solve the problem in isolation. Yes, it's against the law, but 40 years of history have told us this approach is not the solution. The argument for this kind of decriminalization [when it comes to users in possession of small amounts] is that it allows us to focus on the big dealers. And if it's a choice between targeting people for possessing drugs or for stopping children from being sexually exploited, you look at what is causing greater harm."

A man enjoying a spiff and a balloon at the Hyde Park 4/20 smoke-out (Photo by Jake Lewis)

However, this is only part of the story. The Tories would never admit it, but the key driver behind the police's retreat on drug crime is the government's policies. Their decision to cut 17,000 police jobs and impose large cuts to budgets has reduced the police's ability to properly deal with the drug trade, all the way from weekend weed smokers to professional crack suppliers. Many police forces have decided that, with such limited resources, arresting people for minor drug offenses is not worth prioritizing.

The riots in England in August of 2011 came at a time when relations between young black men and police were highly strained because of stop and search. The trigger for the riots was the shooting of Mark Duggan, but the buildup—according to feedback from the rioters—was the police's heavy use of stop and search, primarily to look for drugs.

In reaction to the riots—and to research that showed police unfairly targeted black men for drug shakedowns—Home Secretary Theresa May ordered a scaling-down of stop and search. In London there were nearly 50,000 stop and searches a month in the run-up to the 2011 riots. Now, there are just over 10,000 a month. Even though most stop and searches do not result in a drug bust, this policy is widely seen as a key factor behind the drop in people being booked for cannabis possession.

People are also less likely to get stopped for cannabis possession now because police have less to gain from it. Until recently, booking someone for cannabis was the easiest way individual officers and their forces could meet exacting detection targets. Police used to get the same amount of "points" for solving a rape or murder as they did for arresting someone for having a bag of weed, hence officers being encouraged to sweep known smoke-spots for the low hanging fruit of easy cannabis arrests. Since the government took away this incentive and police forces weaned themselves off easy-win cannabis arrests, officers are far less bothered about hassling people in the streets for drugs.

There is a tacit agreement, both centrally and locally, to take the foot off the gas on drug crime. Although the Tory government enabled regional police forces to pursue their own agenda on crime (very few forces have prioritized drugs), police chiefs have been instructed by the Home Office to focus on child sexual exploitation, people trafficking, firearms and cyber crime.

"It would not be surprising if inspectors and sergeants had responded to falling officer numbers by telling those that remain to focus on the offenses that really matter to their local communities, which may not be drug possession offenses," one criminal justice expert told me.

Backing away from the frontline of the drug trade suits both the police, who have little desire to chase down drug users, and the government, which has more pressing priorities for its shrunken police force.

That, in 2015, the government is pushing to get tougher on drugs while also facilitating—even inadvertently—a culture where police are less tough on drugs is just the latest in a long line of drug war paradoxes: a nighttime economy fueled by drugs, a heroin treatment system that allows the sick to be slung in jail, and teenagers cornered into buying substances that become more obscure and dangerous every year.

You would think that, at some point soon, the government might have the balls to ignore the scaremongers and resolve to banish these paradoxes by getting stuck in and managing the drug problem, rather than continually swatting at thin air. But yet another year down, it's sadly not looking any more likely.

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