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Government plans to criminalise all drug users
"Swift, Certain, Tough" Government white paper promises new consequences for drug possession.

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Swift, Certain, Tough

The Home Office has just published a white paper dedicated to the one issue in the new 10 year drug strategy which has generated the most media interest – reducing demand for drugs by introducing new “consequences” for the possession of recreational drugs. The title of the white paper: “Swift, Certain, Tough” makes the government’s intentions pretty clear although whether the current Home Secretary Priti Patel will be in place to see it through obviously depends on the outcome of the current elections for Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

A Three-Tier approach

The white paper sets out a “tough, escalatory framework aimed at adults caught in possession of low levels of so-called recreational drugs”. A new three-tier framework will apply to all drug users, except where users have a drug dependence and treatment is the most relevant intervention. The government’s stated goal is to bring about large-scale behaviour change by the introduction of tough sanctions for possession.

A simple three-tier system is proposed, simple in the sense that a first possession receives a tier 1 intervention, a second possession gets a tier 2 intervention and, well, you get the picture. More details on the tiers are set out below:

Tier 1: A person should be issued with a fixed penalty notice as an alternative to prosecution, which requires them to attend and pay for a drugs awareness course. If they do not attend the course, they will pay an increased financial penalty. Failure to pay will result in the fine being registered at court for enforcement or prosecution for the original offence.
• Tier 2: Instead of being charged, a person would be offered a caution which would include, where proportionate, a period of mandatory drug testing alongside attendance at a further stage drugs awareness course.
• Tier 3: A person would likely be charged for their offence. On conviction, a new civil court order could be applied for which would enable the court to impose the following conditions: (i) exclusion order; (ii) drug tagging; (iii) passport confiscation; and (iv) driving licence disqualification.

Exclusion orders can last for up to 12 months. Drug tagging for up to four months. It should be noted that the technology for drug tagging is not yet available. Passport confiscations and driving licence disqualifications are both for between 3-24 months.

Test on arrest

The white paper also proposes some important changes to powers for drug testing on arrest. The proposals include making drug testing on arrest cover more Class A drugs (MDMA and LSD are suggested) in the white paper, extend the powers to test for Class B drugs (no particular substances suggested and an acknowledgement that not all such substances can currently be tested for) and expanding the list of trigger offences which can lead to a drug test. Suggested new trigger offences include: those listed under the general terms of domestic abuse, crimes of violence against women and girls including rape and other sexual offences, stalking, and child abuse/neglect, “as well as many others”.


The white paper has been roundly and systematically criticised by many in the drugs, and drugs and crime field. The main criticisms are:

  • The proposals are bound to increase stigma against drug users, one of the key barriers to people seeking treatment and overcoming dependency on drugs.
  • The proposals are also extremely likely to compound racial disparity in the criminal justice system by increasing the policing of drugs. The disproportionate number of Black (particularly young) people who are Stopped and Searched may now be drug tested or enter into the tier system.
  • Many new people not involved in any criminal behaviour apart from their drug use will be criminalised and see their employment prospects hampered by getting a criminal record and/or losing their driving licence.

The government is aware of these criticisms and defends its policy by saying that recreational drug users are: “putting money into the pockets of dangerous drug gangs, fuelling violence and causing wider social harms, including environmental destruction and human trafficking”.


Thanks to Smoke Honest for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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3 Responses

  1. This archaic policy making is not only contradicting all the available public health and social science evidence, it will be a dangerously costly human, ethical and monetary mistake, and indeed putting money into the pockets of dangerous drug gangs, fueling violence and causing wider social harms, including environmental destruction and human trafficking. What a waste.

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