Does this Bristol pilot project suggest the UK is moving towards less draconian drug laws?

The £5 million pilot project came to Bristol earlier this year to help get more people into treatment and prevent reoffending.

Illustration: Alex Dimond

A new Home Office pilot in Bristol to provide drug users with better treatment and recovery programmes, to complement existing local de facto decriminalisation for first-time offenders, suggests the government could be moving towards less draconian drug policies across England.

But without scrapping drug laws, there are warnings that piecemeal and underfunded changes across a limited number of areas for a only some offences, at the police’s discretion, will continue to see the war on drugs waged unevenly against marginalised communities.

Police-led initiatives across Avon and Somerset – as well as the West Midlands, Durham and elsewhere – to not automatically criminalise people who use drugs in certain circumstances and to divert them at least for first offences towards treatment programmes have in some cases been in place for more than five years.

“We understand that criminalising people, without addressing their addiction issues, will not reduce the harm caused by drugs to them or the wider community”

Avon and Somerset drugs lead Mark Runacres

Last month, the Scottish government announced people caught with personal amounts of heroin, cocaine and other class A drugs could be given a police warning instead of facing prosecution, in an effort to reduce Scotland’s drug-related death rate – by far the highest in Europe.

The Bristol diversion scheme, which also tacitly acknowledges that many prisons are rife with drugs, only covers first-time offences, so an out-of-court order or charge for possession remains likely for subsequent offenders. But explicit Home Office support for police diversion schemes from this year indicates the government is more open to evidence-based approaches.

Now, as part of Project Adder (Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery) in Bristol – but not elsewhere in the region – five criminal justice workers based in community hotspots, and prisons, are seeking to help people who use drugs and have been in contact with police to engage with treatment, receive housing advice, and better manage their finances.

Developing Health and Independence (DHI), an organisation delivering part of the treatment plans alongside the council, Bristol Roads (Recovery Orientated Alcohol & Drugs Service) and criminal justice officials, says its focus is on “supporting recovery at a critical time” and that its team works collaboratively to reduce offending and drug misuse.

“We have a team of dedicated peers – someone who uses their own experience to help others going through similar situations – who offer a ‘meet at the gate’ service to support clients on release and accompany them to appointments,” a spokesperson tells the Cable.

Its community services include intensive support packages of one-to-one sessions, a group programme, drug testing, harm reduction, and a counselling service. It comes as the council warns the pandemic and associated restrictions have contributed to increased drug and alcohol use, amid growing research that custodial sentences, including for drugs, are actually more likely to increase reoffending risks.

One step closer to decriminalisation?

Project Adder launched in Blackpool, Hastings, Norwich and Swansea Bay – some of the areas hardest hit by the collateral damage of government drug policies – in January. Three months ago, an expansion to include Bristol, Newcastle, Hackney, the Wirral and several other areas was announced.

The project seeks to better coordinate police work with public health considerations, existing alongside expanded decriminalisation measures including out of court disposal orders and better treatment and recovery plans for people who use drugs, in an effort to reduce drug-related deaths and reoffending, according to the Home Office.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, the UK’s national centre of expertise on drug laws, describes the Home Office’s support for and investment in, drugs diversion programmes a “step in the right direction”.

“[But] a postcode lottery approach will inevitably lead to an inequitable application of the law,” she adds. “In one part of the country a person caught in possession of a controlled drug will be criminalised whils in another they will not – and we know it is young black men who will be disproportionately criminalised.”

Tory backbencher Crispin Blunt, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, tells the Cable that Project Adder should be seen as “a stepping stone to a future when those in need of treatment and support can access it easily, voluntarily, and willingly”.

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“If the route into treatment is via the criminal justice system, which could only ever have a limited role and has no significant potential to safeguard public health, we will continue to fail. It’s time to wake up to the cause of these decades of public health catastrophe and address it on the basis of evidence not instinct, however well-meaning. It’s killing too many people.”

Avon and Somerset Police began operating a diversion scheme in 2016, which resulted in hundreds of first-time drug use offenders avoiding court, jail, and a criminal record. However, the force did not share an updated figure with the Cable, and it was unclear how many of those who completed a one-day drug education session had reoffended and thus been potentially subject to criminal justice sanctions. 

“The funding builds additional capacity into treatment and harm reduction pathways, but the routes that police will use to refer into those pathways will not change through Adder,” Avon and Somerset drugs lead Supt Mark Runacres tells the Cable.

The Home Office maintains that the government is not moving towards decriminalising drugs – although YouGov polling this week suggested 60% of Britons, from across the political spectrum, believe current criminalisation is ineffective. 

“Drugs can destroy lives and cause misery for families and communities and we have no plans to decriminalise drugs,” a Home Office spokesperson tells the Cable. “Through Project Adder we are taking a wide-ranging and integrated approach to prevent drug use and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery.”

Supt Runacres says the total £5m in central funding is welcome and will bring further opportunities for the police to work with council officers and service providers to reduce drug-related harm.

“Our approach to drugs is not changing,” he says. “Education and diversion have been an important part of our strategy for a long time, as we understand that criminalising people, without addressing their addiction issues, will not reduce the harm caused by drugs to them or the wider community.”

Runacres adds the force has long been committed to exploring harm reduction and preventative approaches to drug use, “instead of just using punitive criminal justice outcomes”, due to an appreciation of the potential benefits of such policies. There is increasing acceptance that an effective way to undermine gangs is by helping their customers use drugs less.  

What about more radical approaches?

There are fears that the funding for treatment and mental health projects in Bristol is a fraction of what would be needed to adequately safeguard vulnerable people and meaningfully address the complex needs associated with addiction locally. 

In spite of its limitations, however, Project Adder is nonetheless seen as an important step towards less harmful policies. Avon and Somerset Police has also recently commissioned charity St Giles Trust to build a network of community mentors to help support young people at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs, while another scheme introduced last year for those aged 17 and under offers mentoring and skills development courses to people suspected of dealing drugs.

“After years of cuts to drug treatment services, it is welcome to see some new investment,” former UK government drugs advisor and University of Kent professor Alex Stevens tells the Cable.

“But Project Adder does not follow the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and several public health bodies. In the face of record numbers of drug-related deaths, we need to decriminalise drug possession and invest in life-serving services, such as overdose prevention sites.”

Bristol City Council, which had its plans for a pilot safer drug consumption facility to be established in the city, to reduce overdose deaths, blocked by the government last month, said there are “new and emerging approaches to supporting people with drug and alcohol dependency” that need investigating.

“Project Adder is just one part of the wider approach being taken to tackle the complex issues and impacts associated with drug and alcohol use that go beyond the users themselves and often extend to their families, loved ones, wider communities, services and businesses,” a spokesperson said. “We remain open to exploring new practice and interventions as research emerges.”

The Bristol Cable