mistake is when the courts see it as a potential treatment centre .’
This was ‘ frankly disastrous ’, she said , given the pressures on the prison service , very low levels of staffing , overcrowding and extension of remand . ‘ It ’ s the last place one would see as a treatment centre , either for substance misuse or mental health . It ’ s really important that the courts get a sense that there are real options in the community that work very much better for people who are just getting pulled into the criminal justice system .’
PUBLIC HEALTH APPROACH Although the Scottish Drugs Deaths Taskforce ’ s role was to focus on the recommendations it could make within the current law , said Dr Catriona Matheson , its chair and professor of substance use at the University of Stirling , it was clear that ‘ we need to move towards a public health approach and away from this crime and punishment angle ’. That would ‘ allow us to treat people with dignity and respect and help them to thrive . We need to talk about changing the culture around the law and asking the fundamental question – why are we criminalising people with complex needs who experience serious disadvantage ?’
NO DETERRENT The arguments for decriminalisation were based on looking at the failings of criminalisation , senior policy analyst at Transform , Steve Rolles , told the conference . ‘ The concept of the deterrent sits at the heart of UK policy , but criminalisation is not an effective deterrent . The evidence is simply not there .’ Criminalisation was , however , actively harmful , with the burden falling most on marginalised and vulnerable communities . It could also increase health harms as people were reluctant to approach treatment or emergency services , and it pushed drug use into higher risk , unhygienic environments .
POLICING FAILURE ‘ We ’ ve issued 3m criminal records since the Misuse of Drugs Act was brought into force in 1971 ,’ said Release executive director , Niamh Eastwood . ‘ Criminalisation
undermines health , creates further harms and contributes to further inequalities .’ Those targeted by drug law enforcement were mainly young people , people of colour – particularly black people – and those living on the margins , such as people who were street homeless and didn ’ t have private spaces to use drugs . ‘ So while drug use is ubiquitous , drug law enforcement is not . This really matters when it comes to policing ,’ with the vast majority of stop and searches carried out on the street related to drugs – primarily possession offences for personal use .
The stigma linked to criminalisation was also hugely powerful . More than half of people who died a drug-related death in England and Wales hadn ’ t been in contact with treatment services for the last five years , she said . ‘ You have to ask why . When you are first and foremost seen as a criminal you are less likely to access the treatment services you may need .’
In the past five years , almost 6,500 people in England and Wales had been sent to prison for possession of a controlled drug , with nearly 80 per cent never convicted of drug possession before . When decriminalisation models were done well , with investment in treatment and harm reduction , then ‘ we can see really positive outcomes . An environment where you don ’ t treat people like criminals means it ’ s much more likely they ’ ll access the support they need .’
DRUG DIVERSION Drug diversion schemes were now in place in some form across around 12 police authorities in the UK , however , said Rolles . ‘ It ’ s in the new drug strategy , it ’ s one of the Ds in the government ’ s flagship ADDER scheme , it was recommended in the Carol Black review . The government doesn ’ t particularly like to talk about it , certainly as a form of decriminalisation , but it does seem to be edging towards becoming national policy , and the better schemes can be seen as a form of de facto decriminalisation . The good ones are largely indistinguishable from the experience you ’ d have if you were caught in possession in Portugal .’
So what were the obstacles to
wider change ? ‘ Why are we only limping towards decriminalisation when so many other countries support it ?’ he said . Simplistic drug war narratives were still persuasive in the public domain and needed to be challenged , and there was also lack of engagement from key professional groups . ‘ Doctors , GPs , medical professionals have an authority in the public and political debate . Unlike politicians or journalists , they ’ re trusted
Community sentences with treatment requirements remain spectacularly underused .
There is a holistic health , housing and employment need .
Why are we criminalising people with complex needs ?
Why are we only limping towards decriminalisation ?
Criminalisation undermines health , creates further harms and contributes to further inequalities .
voices , and when they speak out for change people listen .’
They needed to use their voice to advocate for change , he urged , and while some of the royal colleges supported decriminalisation , other organisations had no public position on it . ‘ It ’ s just not good enough . If you don ’ t have a position on decriminalisation by default you tacitly support criminalisation of a key vulnerable population .’ DDN
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APRIL 2022 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • 19