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U.K. Police Chiefs Call for Decriminalization of First-Time Drug Offenses

An international group of chief police officers is working on a plan that would effectively make possession of marijuana and cocaine illegal. The government would treat small amounts of marijuana and cannabis possession as a matter of public health and not as a crime that could lead to jail or prison time.

The proposals, which were developed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing, would effectively decriminalize the possession of Class A drugs including cocaine and Class B substances such as marijuana. Individuals caught with illegal substances would have the option to undergo drug education programs or be prosecuted. 

The police would not take any further action against anyone who agreed to the program. This gives them the chance to get a clean criminal record. Criminal prosecutions would be pursued against those who violate the terms of the drug program and are caught using illegal drugs.

Jason Harwin is the ex-NPCC drug lead and a former deputy chief police officer. He currently works with the College of Policing to develop a new partial decriminalization strategy.

“We should not criminalize someone for possession of drugs,” he said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “It should be diversion to other services to give them a chance to change their behaviors.”

Fourteen of the U.K.’s 43 police forces have already adopted policies similar to the drug decriminalization proposal from the nation’s police chiefs. But the plan is at odds with the country’s Conservative Party government, which has floated proposals to stiffen the penalties on recreational drugs including cannabis.

In October, U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman revealed that she was considering tightening the classification of cannabis under the nation’s drug laws over concerns that marijuana is a gateway drug and can lead to serious health problems. Braverman’s review followed calls from law enforcement leaders to reclassify cannabis as a Class A drug, the same category assigned to substances including heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy.

Braverman is against the decriminalization of cannabis, saying that efforts to reform cannabis policy send a “cultural” symbol that marijuana use is acceptable, according to a report from The Times. Home secretary also concerns about the evidence that marijuana use could lead to severe physical and mental conditions, including schizophrenia and birth defects.

A stricter Class A drug classification for cannabis could make marijuana possession offenses even more serious. This would include prison sentences of up seven years and life imprisonment for producers and sellers of marijuana. Braverman received information from an unidentified source. The TimesAccording to the Home Secretary, the harsher penalties would deter marijuana use and trafficking.

“We’ve got to scare people,” she reportedly said.

In July, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel announced proposed new sanctions on users of cannabis and other drugs that include the confiscation of driver’s licenses and passports under a new three-strikes policy for illicit drug use. 

“Drugs are a scourge across society. They devastate lives and tear communities apart,” Patel said in a statement from the government. “Drug misuse puts lives at risk, fuels criminality and serious and violent crime and also results in the grotesque exploitation of young, vulnerable people.”

The Home Office’s white paper detailed the proposed proposal. Those caught using illegal recreational drugs could face penalties and education. You could even be barred from bars and nightclubs.

“Drugs ruin lives and devastate communities which is why the Government is committed to tackling both the supply and demand for drugs, as set out in the 10-year Drug Strategy,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement to the press. “Our White Paper on new, tougher penalties for drug possession set out proposals for tackling demand and we have welcomed views on this. We will be publishing our response in due course.”

But drug policy reform advocates and health professionals are resisting the government’s proposed tougher approach to drug use. On Sunday, more than 500 public and health and drug organizations issued an open letter to the U.K. government expressing “serious concerns” about the plan, which they said would likely criminalize young and vulnerable people while diverting scarce police resources from more serious problems.

Professor David Strain, the chairman of the British Medical Association’s board of science, said the Government’s plans appeared “to be doubling down on a failed model by promoting ever harsher sanctions that perpetuate the stigma and shame already acting as a barrier to individuals seeking help, and ultimately discouraging drug users from seeking the healthcare services they need.”