The debate about drugs is taking place on shaky foundations as a result of the total ignorance participants are faced with. To argue against current drug policy, one must first actually have some idea what current policy actually is. Most people do not, because you have to either research the subject, or work within a field related to it.
I volunteered within the criminal justice sector for a social care charity and saw government policy in action, as well as the procedure of the police and the courts regarding drug addicts. I refer to this because it was an enlightening experience which most people have not had and I consider it important to speak about my experience to the uninformed.
It is very easy for one to wander off into the wilderness of ignorance because of ideological or passionate fervour on a subject that interests and inflames all parties involved. What I will try and do when discussing the subject is simply to argue for the debate about drugs to be based on a foundation of truth and knowledge, that way those making their case are not arguing from a false position.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has attempted to score political points by arguing for the decriminalisation of drugs. He has expressed outrage that people are arrested for possession, damned the Tories for their opposition to a change in approach, and called for drug addiction to be treated as a medical issue. Clegg is either playing on the ignorance of the public by wilfully misrepresenting drug policy for cheap political gain, or he is unacceptably ignorant about an issue he continues to leap into feet first.
Let me make something clear by discussing a couple of scenarios similar to actual situations I came across. I will use an example of a young man called, say, David Bloggs who is 20 years old, a fictional character, but also an amalgamation of real people I met.
David is on a night out with friends. He has been drinking and taking Cocaine. Later in the evening he gets involved in a minor altercation in the street. He is arrested by the police for being drunk and disorderly, but also caught in possession of cocaine and undergoes a positive test for the substance. So, what happens next?
The police will decide whether to charge him for being drunk and disorderly. The likelihood is that they will not and will choose instead to tick him off. They will then, and this is the important part, order him to attend one compulsory appointment with a support worker at a local social care service. He will not be charged for possession of cocaine. This is current police procedure and is part of the drugs intervention programme (DIP, implemented since 2003), the police will also refer those arrested for a non-drug related offence who test positive for drugs in the process of their arrest.
In this debate people often call for drug addiction to be treated as a health problem and say that users should not to be 'thrown in jail'. This is current government policy. Drug addiction is treated as a health problem and drug users are not thrown in jail. Government policy has been moving this way for decades and the enforcement of the drugs laws have become progressively more liberal since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
There is now a political consensus over liberal drug laws and that 'addiction' should be treated as a health problem. Official legislation and the sentences that could theoretically be handed out for possession and the use of drugs remain in place while the actual practically applied policy is quite different. This is one of the major causes of the mass ignorance on this subject, governments do not push through official changes in legislation as they worry about the backlash against it thus the tough sounding laws remain on the statute books.
What we actually have are liberal laws and the effective decriminalisation of the possession of drugs excluding very large amounts deemed to be held with ‘intent to supply’.
Now, back to young David Bloggs, by Monday morning he is sober and feeling rather sheepish and concerned. He is full of questions; will my workplace be informed? Am I going to be charged with possession? Will I have a criminal record? Due to received wisdom about the enforcement of drugs laws he is a bag of nerves and worrying about his future. Numerous times I sat in on interviews with young people who were hugely relieved when they realised that the police had no further involvement and they only had to attend one compulsory appointment.
He arrives for his appointment and is taken into an interview room. In that room an 'offender coordinator' or a social support worker will assess him with a series of standard questions. These are designed to help the interviewer discover if the client needs any ongoing support, if they do they will be referred to the relevant service. The interviewer will fill in an assessment form that looks something like this:
The notes on David’s form would read something like this:
Arrested for drunk and disorderly. No charge. No criminal record.
Rented accommodation with friends. Able to pay rent. No issues.
Family & Relationships:
No family issues, contact with mother and father. Two brothers. No children.
No health issues.
In full-time work.
Need to control behaviour when drinking to avoid another arrest.
Infrequent Cocaine use. Occasional use on weekends as a 'treat'.
Based on this information the individual carrying out the assessment would conclude that David is not in need of long term support, thus he would not be taken onto their caseload and referred for further support. They would give him 'harm reduction' advice on how to use cocaine 'safely', such as alternating nostrils if snorting and not mixing with alcohol. They may try and gently persuade him to be more careful and mindful of using the substance. They may also give advice about alcohol use and discuss the dangers of binge drinking. Then David would be under no obligation to attend any more interviews or assessments and he would have no criminal record. That is how it’s done.
Not all cases are like this, obviously. Other clients who have serious drug misuse problems, and are 'prolific offenders' will fill the whole form up with information and be taken onto caseload for further long-term support. They may also have issues with housing, mental health, education, etc. for which they will be referred to a relevant service that can help them. It is important to note however that an individual who is deemed to be in need of support will only be obligated by law to attend one more follow up assessment interview, after which all appointments will be voluntary.
What I am trying to get across here is simple. Ignorance about the current drug policy is widespread. It is very rare for a defendant to be sent to prison for the simple possession of a drug (heroin, cocaine and cannabis being the most common). Prison sentences are most often for offences, of a serious kind, that addicts commit in order to pay for drugs. Supplying drugs, domestic burglary and street robbery are examples. Even when a court would be justified in passing such a sentence it is common, when recommended by the Probation Service in a formal report, for an addict to be made subject to a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement (DRR).
A DRR may require the addict to undergo treatment as an in-patient, or in a less rigorous fashion, for varying lengths of time. Thereafter it is common for review hearings to take place. This involves the subject returning to court regularly so that their progress can be monitored.
Should an offender not abide by the terms of the DRR, breach proceedings can be implemented. I have seen this in action when clients did not turn up for appointments or disengaged with the service. If a breach is proven then the court may re-sentence the offender as if he or she had just been convicted. In such circumstances a prison sentence may follow.
It should be noted also, that those in court for drug related crimes (such as burglary) and deemed to be have a problem with drug 'addiction' are often treated leniently. They will become the subject of a DRR, and will either face no jail sentence or a very short sentence of 1-3 months. In my experience of meeting many people in this situation, this leniency breeds contempt for the law and causes re-offending behaviour
A great many of those made the subject of a DRR take advantage of it. This being the current drug policy of the government- treating drug addiction as a health and social problem, effective decriminalisation of possession- in what way does Nick Clegg help the situation with his uninformed observations? How can people so enthusiastically involve themselves in this debate if they are starting from a position of ignorance?