People caught carrying personal amounts of drugs, including cocaine and heroin, are being diverted away from the criminal justice system in what could mark the first step towards the decriminalisation of drugs in Britain, VICE can reveal.
In a move that appears to fly in the face of the Home Office's official anti-drug reform mantra, both Durham and Avon & Somerset Police forces have for several months been operating "diversion" schemes which have resulted in scores of drug users avoiding court, jail and a criminal record.
It marks the first time people caught with cocaine and heroin have avoided automatic criminalisation since the possession of both drugs without a prescription was banned a century ago under the Defence of the Realm Act, which was introduced in 1916 during the First World War.
In Bristol, where Avon and Somerset's Drug Education Programme has been running since April, 215 people caught in possession of drugs – an offence with a maximum sentence of seven years – have been offered an alternative to receiving a criminal record and court summons. Instead, drug users can attend a three-and-a-half hour drug education workshop run by a local drug service. If the workshop is successfully completed, those caught with drugs receive a letter confirming that their drug possession offence has been dropped. Anyone can be offered the diversion, regardless of their past criminal record, including previous cannabis warnings and drug convictions.
Police say 80 percent have taken up the offer and completed the workshop. However, those diverted onto the scheme, which has been extended to April next year, only get one shot. As with cannabis warnings, if they are caught a second time they will be arrested and dealt with as normal.
Over half of those diverted onto the scheme were picked up for possession of cannabis, and a quarter were stopped carrying either cocaine or MDMA. Others have come onto the scheme after being caught with heroin, crack cocaine, speed, ketamine, magic mushrooms and 2CB.
Drug workers say problem heroin and crack users are less likely to take part in the experiment. Most already have a history of drug convictions and some prefer going to prison. Police say people caught in possession of drugs alongside more serious crimes such as theft are less likely to be offered the scheme than others. So far, 40 young people, who attend a special youth version of the workshops, have taken part in the experiment.
Paul Bunt, Avon and Somerset Police's drug strategy manager, who devised the scheme, said: "In schools, drug education is patchy – it's not taken seriously. Being arrested for drug possession is a shock. When someone gets detained by a police officer it's a scary experience for those who have not been arrested before. But I wanted a process where I could deal with low-level drug offences without getting people involved in the criminal justice system. As of yet we are not aware of anyone being arrested again after attending one of these workshops."
In Durham a more wide-ranging diversion programme, Checkpoint, has been targeting perpetrators of several high volume offences such as theft and violence, as well as drug possession, since April of last year. The force attracted attention last year after announcing it would not arrest people for low-level cannabis possession and cultivation offences, but nothing has been said about its decision to divert some class A drug users away from the courts – although they have a tougher alternative than the one employed in Bristol.
To date, 74 people arrested for possession of drugs under the Checkpoint scheme in County Durham – including for class A drugs cocaine and heroin – have had their prosecutions "suspended", subject to successful completion of a four-month "contract". During this contract offenders cannot break the law and must attend a series of drug awareness, restorative justice and community work programmes. So far, only three of the 74 caught in possession of drugs have failed to see out their contract and get their offence expunged.
I'm told a third police force, Devon and Cornwall, is in line to roll out Durham's Checkpoint scheme, including the diversion of people caught in possession of drugs – although a spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall police would neither confirm nor deny the force's position.
Evidence collected from Avon & Somerset and Durham police forces, which will be seen by the Home Office, suggest that the schemes have so far been highly successful in engaging certain drug users, reducing re-offending and keeping people out of the costly justice system.
A Home Office spokesperson said of the schemes: "This government has no intention of decriminalising drugs. It is vital that the police and criminal justice system have a range of measures available to them to prevent drug use, [but] also have the tools to deal robustly with serious and repeat offenders who cause the most harm in our communities."
However, VICE has learned from a senior policing insider that, despite its historical ambivalence, the Home Office has "an appetite" for looking at ways of edging towards decriminalisation, which it prefers to call "diversion" because it's less likely to get the right-wing tabloids excited. If the pilots are given positive evaluations there is a real prospect that the Home Office and Public Health England could set up a UK-wide programme similar to those being tested in Bristol and Durham.
This is not as surprising as it sounds. The Psychoactive Substances Act introduced in May this year outlawed a raft of substances, but crucially did not criminalise possession. There is growing support for a Portuguese style system of decriminalisation in the UK, from public health bodies, medical experts and newspapers such as the Times. Moreover, a report into Britain's drug laws – to be published later this year by the government's own drug advisory body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – looks set to back decriminalisation as an effective policy. In 2014, more than 60,000 people received a caution or conviction for drug possession in England and Wales. A criminal record for drug possession – which you can get via a caution – can severely restrict people's future job prospects and ability to travel abroad.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug law charity Release, said: "The fact that police forces are recognising the futility of criminalising those who use drugs and are willing to implement alternative approaches shows that they are well ahead of the government when it comes to recognising what good public policy can look like. We hope that the government takes note and learns from local policing initiatives – such as those in Bristol and Durham – so that they can inform a much-needed shift in national policy."
Eastwood said over 20 countries in the world, such as Portugal, have adopted non-criminal responses to possession of drugs, with "irrefutable benefits for individuals, society and the government", and without leading to sweeping rises in drug use.
However, the pilot schemes in Bristol and Durham are far from being part of a national trend of relaxing how drug possession is policed. Across the country stop and search for drugs remains persistently high, accounting for 60 percent of all searches, and even reaching 80 percent in some parts of London, Eastwood points out.
One senior police officer with experience of the drug trade, who did not want to be named, told VICE: "I fail to understand why anyone caught with a small amount of drugs should face seven years in prison. It doesn't solve the problem of why they have that drug in the first place and we don't have the time of day to help them if they need it.
"Officers should be able to stop people in the street without thinking they are going to have to arrest them if they find a small amount of drugs on them. At the moment our hands are tied. The experiments going on in Bristol and Durham are brave. You have to hope the government looks at the evidence, because criminalising people for drug possession is counter-productive."
UPDATE 19/10/16: A sentence was added to reflect the fact that Devon and Cornwall Police have neither confirmed nor denied that they too will be rolling out Durham's Checkpoint scheme.
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