This morning we exclusively revealed that two British police forces—Durham and Somerset & Avon—have for several months been trialling "diversion" schemes, where people caught carrying personal amounts of drugs (including crack and heroin) have been referred to drug education workshops rather than getting a criminal record for drug possession, in what could signal the first steps towards the decriminalization of drugs in Britain.
So what actually happens if you're caught in possession of drugs in Bristol under this new scheme, and take the offer of completing a drug education workshop instead of getting a criminal record? I went to one in Bristol to find out.
The workshop, run by drug charity Swanswell, takes place in a meeting room in a drug service in the St. Pauls area of Bristol. Neither Josh nor Andy, the two drug workers running this session, are the stereotypical, pony-tailed drug worker type. Josh is a 24-year-old with a psychology degree and Andy a 51-year-old former prison officer. Both are straight talking and respectful to the participants, as most drug workers are.
As with most of the 185 people who have turned up for one of these workshops there's a spread of drug users here. Five of them were caught with cannabis, three with MDMA, two with cocaine, and two with speed.
"This group of people wouldn't normally come into contact with drug services," says Josh before the group turns up. "It's a chance for them to understand risks and damage that can be caused by taking drugs and to tell them if they go down a certain path it could be problematic."
One by one, ten of the 11 people booked onto the workshop arrive for the 1 PM start, showing ID to prove who they are. The youngest is 18-year-old Jake and the oldest is a woman in her fifties named Maria. Most here today—as is the case across the scheme—are men in their twenties and thirties.
There's a bit of footy banter about the Cardiff City vs. Bristol City game later that day, but there's a pretty awkward, elevator-style silence, with some looking at their phones or into space. When I later ask them about their reaction to being offered the chance to attend a drug workshop instead of getting a court summons, unsurprisingly they all say variations of the same thing: "Thank fuck for that," or, "I signed up straight away."
Josh starts by explaining that they are not here to judge or get into a three-hour argument about the merits of cannabis legalization. Instead, they'll be talking about some of the consequences of taking drugs. The "ice breaker" stretches that expression a bit; Josh has a "wheel of drugs" on the projector screen and every time he presses his gadget a spinning arrow lands on a different drug and the group is asked to talk about the effects of that substance. They are not bad at this game.
In a discussion about how drugs these days often contain unreliable, sometimes dangerous chemicals—such as "rat poison and brick dust" (both of which are urban myths, by the way)—it surfaces that one of those present was caught with a bag of speed that turned out to be an inert powder.
That person is Terry, a middle-aged ex-army man wearing an England shirt. He says that although he's "anti-drugs" he was given a spoonful worth of speed in a baggie in a pub for £20 [$25] a few weeks back, "because someone told me it would help my hangover." He was just about to snort a line in a cubicle when a bouncer kicked the door down and called the cops.
Andy, the ex-prison officer, runs though his version of the Faces of Meth: drug horror images of people with no teeth, colostomy bags, and abscesses. Josh goes through how a drugs caution or conviction can jeopardize future work or travel plans—for example, not getting into the US.
Maria, the middle-aged woman, who discretely managed to have a five-minute nap under her hoodie earlier, starts complaining. She says she's been smoking cannabis for 30 years, has a Masters degree, and would rather pay a £1,000 [$1,200] fine than be here. Yet, 20 minutes later, possibly realizing she might "fail" the workshop, she admits she actually is glad to be here because otherwise she might lose her job in clinical research if the case ends up in court.
She explains she was arrested at home with an eighth of weed after a nuisance neighbor in her upmarket street told police she was wandering around the house with an axe. She says she wasn't, but armed police did turn up and that's when they found the drugs.
Next, a peer mentor—someone who has experienced problems with drugs—arrives to talk from the heart about how things can go wrong. Only, this guy—who looks like he'd be at home at the bar in From Dusk Till Dawn—is perhaps a little too aggressive, warning the group about the perils of crack addiction by pointing out they could lose their kids and end up "shitting yourself down the back of your trousers."
Most people here have not been arrested for drugs before. Nearly all of them have jobs and have had to lie to their bosses to attend. As they take turns to have one-on-ones with the drug workers, I chat to some of the other participants.
Jim and Nathan, in their mid-twenties, are both chefs at the same restaurant in Bristol. They arrived here after being picked up by police outside a bar with two ecstasy pills each in their pockets. They were up front with their boss about today's visit and he was fine with it.
Arthur, a heavily tattooed guy in his late twenties, ended up getting caught with cocaine after he was arrested for fighting outside a pub.
I speak to the 18-year-old, Jake. He's here after being caught walking into a pub with a £10 [$12] bag of weed. It wasn't his fault; his friend essentially grassed him up by asking, "Did you manage to get in with the weed?" within earshot of the doorman they'd just walked past. He's never been in trouble with the police before and told his mom the night he got caught with the cannabis. Luckily for him, this program has meant he has avoided a potentially ruinous criminal record.
"I think it's the best way, to allow someone arrested for a drug offense to have a chance to redeem themselves and not have such an ugly offense on their record," he says.
No doubt, many would agree.
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