Release has launched a comment page where Release staff and guest commentators will provide analysis of current issues within drug policy. Readers of the comment sections will be able to leave their thoughts about the issues being raised. This section of the website has been launched to coincide with Release’s new campaign Drugs – It’s Time For Better Laws.
Posted by kirstie on Monday, 08 October 2012
Last month Release won four Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) appeals at Social Security Tribunals on behalf of our clients. A good month you might say, but in fact it’s not unusual. An increasing number of our clients are being deemed capable of work following Atos medical assessments and then finding that their benefits stop as a result. For many this comes as a complete shock as they struggle to manage their affairs and don’t often open letters – especially the brown envelopes!
But the country has to save money, and so there has to be a system to weed out the false claims doesn’t there? But what if that system doesn’t work? What if, instead of identifying those that really shouldn’t receive sickness benefits, the system actually excludes those who are most in need of support? This is exactly what the DWP’s method of assessing ESA claimants does in relation to people who use drugs (and many other groups). Clients report assessments lasting no more than 20 minutes, physical examinations undertaken when only mental health conditions are reported by the claimant, completely incorrect information being recorded and supporting evidence being ignored. How can this possibly determine someone’s fitness for work or otherwise? In short, it can’t. But it does.
Last month Release, along with the UK Drug Policy Commission, Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust, Drug Scope and Turning Point, responded to a call for evidence about the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) by Professor Harrington as part of an on-going independent review. This is the third such review and after each previous analysis Professor Harrington has made recommendations for improvement. The current evaluation intends to determine what has changed since the last report in 2011. Overwhelmingly the clients we interviewed reported no change between their most recent WCA and the one the year before. Some even said the earlier one had been better! Despite Professor Harrington’s calls for improvement in the assessment process, it appears that no change is occurring on the ground and in fact things are getting worse, with claimants continuing to suffer.
Release is successful in over 90% of the ESA tribunals they attend, and frequently get decisions overturned without even the need for an oral hearing. Shockingly, this experience is not replicated for other claimants. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice just last week show that only 42% of ESA tribunals in the first quarter of 2012/13 found in favour of the appellant. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the original decision was correct – often it is the result of having little or no support in preparing for and attending the hearing. Legal Aid is available for representation in these cases, but with a fixed fee of £167 per case payable to the representative it is not an attractive prospect – particularly if you consider the work actually involved with these cases. This often means that minimal time is spent on case preparation, and representation is then not provided so vulnerable people attend tribunals unaccompanied. As Release is not constrained by public funding our legal advisers spend 12-16 hours on an average case from start to finish, taking instructions, obtaining supporting evidence, drafting submissions and representing at the hearing. And that doesn’t include the time spent chasing the DWP when they still haven’t implemented the Tribunal decision months later! These figures highlight the need for specialist representation, and the dramatic consequences of not having it – already disadvantaged people are further marginalised.
To date the Government has already outsourced £3 billion worth of contracts to Atos for various undertakings, including a newly awarded contract of £400 million to provide assessments for those claiming the new type of disability living allowance which will be introduced next year. It is shocking that the Government continues to waste public money on a private company who continuously gets it wrong in relation to medical assessments, and even more disturbing that they intend to expand the use of this service which undoubtedly causes further distress to those already suffering from mental and physical health problems. The Government has to take responsibility for this failure but this is unlikely considering those on benefits have been demonised in order to bring about some of the most vicious cuts on welfare spending since the introduction of the Welfare State.
Posted by Basak Tas on Friday, 15 June 2012
This morning, we read in the Metro of poor Katie Wilson who was ‘mistaken for a heroin addict’ (?!), after she stripped off in her local Tesco, apparently as a consequence of taking Benzo Fury. This is just one of many unusual consequences of taking ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ or ‘Novel Psychoactive substances’, (a.k.a. ’ Bath Salts’, ‘plant-feed’, ‘room odourisers’ and DVD cleaners), we are told.
To make it easier for you to understand what could happen if you took ‘bath salts or another drug’, I’ve compiled a list of the effects that you are likely to experience according to press sources:
Walking around supermarket aisles ‘like a catwalk diva’ (presumably an up-market chain to blend in better)
Chewing pens (which makes you look like you have black teeth, unless the ink is blue or red, of course)
Wearing women’s underwear (only really notable if you are not a woman)
So what do these bath salts/legal highs contain? Well, according to a few reports, bath salts are thought to contain (or have similar effects to) a combination of ALL of the following:
I guess it’s not important to the press what the people in these stories took exactly; the point is they were high and acted like idiots, which is funny. Aside from the tragic stories such as the Miami Cannibal Rudy Eugene or man-eating Carl Jacquneaux, most of these articles are ludicrous scare-mongering reports of ‘legal high’-induced absurd behaviour. However, whilst it is very entertaining to read of a naked man ‘monged’ out of his face, stealing goats, it is worrying to consider that more people are being exposed to these ridiculous stories than real facts about these relatively unknown substances.
Just to clarify, ‘bath salts’ or benzo fury aren’t one type of drug. The phrase ‘bath salts’ is put on labels of psycho-active chemicals to bypass the protection offered by the Medicines Act (1968). The truth is, ‘bath salts’ (in this context, as opposed to nice relaxing ‘Radox’-type ablution experience) usually contain a number of mostly ‘legal’ chemicals, but unless you were to test every single packet sold, you would never be able to be completely certain of the contents. Therefore, it is very difficult to be definitive about the effects of any chemical on human beings, particularly if the exact nature of that chemical is unknown. If you want more accurate information, keep yourself informed on drug forums and read the Release pages on drugs.
Legal highs - a term given to substances that are used recreationally but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). However, as more of these substances are becoming controlled, this term is still used by the public to describe substances that were either recently made illegal or are still legal. However, officially, newly controlled chemicals are known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS).
Research chemicals - essentially these are legal highs. They are chemicals that are used in laboratories for scientific research but have sought-after effects.
Posted by Rupert George on Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Release welcomes the Committee’s inquiry into drugs and hopes this will be an opportunity for greater debate and analysis of this important policy area.
Release’s submission will provide evidence on the following: the impact of policing drugs in the UK; the experiences of jurisdictions that have adopted a decriminalised approach to drug possession; the failure of successive UK Governments to properly consider the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (‘ACMD’); the misinterpretation of the role of the classification system as defined by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (‘MDA 1971’); and the recommendations of previous Committees in respect of alternative ways of tackling drugs. It is our opinion that this information will be of assistance to the Committee in relation to the following:
- The extent to which the Government’s 2010 drug strategy is a ‘fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights’;
- The criteria used by the Government to measure the efficacy of its drug policies;
- The independence and the quality of expert advice which is being given to the Government;
- The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage;
- Whether detailed considerations ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma as recommended by previous Committees.
An effective drug strategy will be dependent on a number of factors including investment in drug treatment and harm reduction services. One of the major components of an effective policy is the approach taken to the policing and prosecution of drug offences, in particular, possession offences. Release’s submission will focus on this aspect of the UK’s drug policy and will demonstrate that the current criminal justice system (‘CJS’) approach fails in its aim to deter drug use and in fact creates significant harms for certain sections of society.
1. The impact of policing drugs in the United Kingdom
One of the major failings of the current drugs laws is the disproportionate application of those laws and the policing of them. The reality is that the vast majority of people who use controlled drugs in the UK will never face prosecution nor will they be subject to a police stop and search.
The British Crime Survey estimates that one in three adults in England and Wales have used an illicit drug in their lifetime. Nearly 3 million people used an illegal substance in the last year, during the same period almost 80,000 were found guilty of or cautioned for possession, a further 95,000 were dealt with under the cannabis warning scheme. Even if it is accepted that none of these individuals were repeat offenders it would appear, based on the statistics, just over 5% of those who used illicit drugs in the last year actually fell foul of the law.
It is impossible to police and prosecute everyone who uses drugs within the UK. In practice what is occurring is that those from black and Asian communities, the young and those from areas of deprivation are disproportionately policed. Research has found that black people are 9.2 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drug offences; 6.1 times more likely to be arrested and 11.4 times more likely to go to prison6. This is despite the fact that the British Crime Survey shows that drug use is higher amongst the white population than the non-white population7.
In 2010, the Metropolitan Police carried out over half a million stop and searches8, of this number over 50% were for drugs. Over half of those stopped and searched were under the age of 24 and both those from the black and Asian communities were significantly overrepresented. The arrest rate resulting from these stops and searches was 8%.
Release is currently undertaking research with the London School of Economics which further examines the disproportionate policing of drug offences. On initial analysis it would appear that less harsh criminal justice responses, such as cannabis warnings, are more readily available to those from a white background.
The policing of drugs significantly undermines community relations. It is young black and Asian men from certain communities who are subject to such police interference from an early age. In most cases these stops occur using the powers conferred on police by the MDA 1971. The fact that these young people are repeatedly stopped and searched results in a breach of trust between them, the police and other state actors. Further to this, studies have shown that black people are twice as likely to enter the criminal justice system following stop and search.
The unequal application of a law, that is essentially unenforceable, is a powerful reason for other alternatives to be considered. A system which adopted a civil legal approach to drug possession would see a reduction in policing of drug use and divert people away from the criminal justice system.
2. The experiences of jurisdictions that have adopted a decriminalised approach to drug possession
The main concern of those that oppose a decriminalisation model for drug possession is that it would be a ‘green light’ for drug use and would result in a cataclysmic increase in consumption. The evidence shows this is not the case.
Release has recently undertaken a review10 of jurisdictions that have adopted a model of decriminalisation. For clarity, the term ‘decriminalisation’ is generally accepted by those in the policy field as meaning that drugs are still illegal, but either the police decide not to enforce the laws (a de facto model) or that possession and use are dealt with through the civil system (a de jure model). Based on this definition, it is estimated that between 30 – 35 jurisdictions have adopted some form of decriminalisation.
The main aim of the paper is to ascertain what impact the enforcement policy adopted has on the drug prevalence rates within that jurisdiction; the conclusion is that the model adopted has very little relationship with the levels of drug use. The paper has been submitted to the Committee in draft form and it is expected to be published in the next two months. However, to assist the Committee the following examples support the conclusion put forward:
In 2001 Portugal decriminalised possession and use of all illicit drugs. Along with significant investment in treatment and harm reduction services, Portugal introduced a civil legal system for dealing with drug possession. Those caught in possession of illicit substances12 are now referred to a ‘dissuasion commission’ (CDT), a three person panel made up of medical experts, social workers and legal professionals13. The Panel can recommend treatment or can impose a low level sanction such as a fine or community service. However, on the first occasion the person does not receive a sanction and does not have to access treatment unless they choose to do so. In such cases, the offence is recorded and is kept on record for 6 months, after this period it is removed from the system. A person only receives a sanction or is mandated to treatment if they appear before the CDT within the prescribed six month period.
When first introduced many critics of the scheme expected it to be a disaster which would result in rocketing rates of drug use and drug tourism. This was not the case. The Portuguese model has been extensively reviewed and there is broad agreement that whilst there has been a slight increase in the overall drug use amongst the population, (this is an experience shared with the country’s neighbours) there has been a small reduction in the number of young people using illicit drugs (cannabis use is significantly lower in Portugal than in the neighbouring countries of Spain and Italy) and a reduction in the numbers who use drugs problematically. Furthermore, HIV transmission rates have significantly reduced from 907 new cases in 2000 to 267 in 2008. There has also been a reduction in drug related deaths attributed to overdose.
On the criminal justice side, Portugal has reduced the number of criminal drug offences from approximately 14,000 per year to an average of 5,000 to 5,500 per year after decriminalisation. This has led to a significant reduction in the proportion of individuals in Portuguese prisons for drug related offences —in 1999, 44 per cent of prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related offences; by 2008, that figure had reduced to 21 per cent. This resulted in a major reduction in prison overcrowding in Portuguese prisons. Since decriminalisation, Portuguese law enforcement statistics have also revealed an increase in operational capacity resulting in more domestic drug trafficking seizures and an increase in international anti-trafficking collaborations that have provided for greater targeting of drug traffickers by sea.
To date, three Australian states19 have laws in place decriminalising possession and use of cannabis. In the review of analytical literature about the impact of decriminalisation on cannabis usage in Australia, we found: one study finding a significant increase in cannabis usage in decriminalised states;21 one study demonstrating a decrease in cannabis usage after decriminalisation; and four studies finding decriminalisation had no significant impact on cannabis usage prevalence.23 Collectively, these studies suggest that cannabis decriminalisation in Australia has had a minor, if any, impact on cannabis usage.
Yet the decriminalised states have shown a capacity to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system. One study compared individuals given a cannabis enforcement notice (non-criminal response) in South Australia and individuals given a criminal sentence in Western Australia (pre-decriminalisation) and found that the individuals given criminal penalties were more likely to suffer negative employment, relationship, and accommodation consequences as a result of their cannabis charge and were more likely to come into further contact with the criminal justice system than the South Australia individuals. The data also suggests decriminalisation can save States scarce fiscal resources as opposed to criminalisation policies.
2.3 Czech Republic
The Czech Republic decided to legislate to decriminalise drug possession after carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of the criminal system. After a two year project that was concluded in 2002, research found that:
- As a result of this analysis, the Czech Republic formally decriminalised possession of illegal drugs in 2010. It is too soon to determine the impact of the new policy approach but it is interesting to see a country adopting a new model for addressing drug use based on an evidenced assessment of a criminal justice approach.
- Penalisation of drug use had not prevented the availability of illicit drugs; There was an increase in the levels of drug use within the country; The social costs of illicit drugs increased significantly.
- Based on the review undertaken by Release the evidence appears to support the position that the law enforcement approach taken has little impact on the levels of drug consumption within a country. The question that should then be asked is why pursue an expensive law enforcement approach that criminalises individuals creating significant harms in terms of employability and education.
According to the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Abuse the UK spends the highest proportion of GDP on ‘the drug problem’ and yet has some of the highest rates of drug use within Western Europe26. It would certainly appear that the current strategy is not ‘fiscally responsible’ and that criminalising drug possession does not meet its aim of deterring use. In fact, research has shown that criminalisation plays a significant factor in stigmatising those who use drugs problematically and can therefore act as a deterrent in seeking treatment27.
3. The failure of successive Governments to properly consider the advice of the ACMD
Successive governments have ignored or failed to act upon the advice of the ACMD. Evidence of this is well established and decisions relating to the reclassification of ecstasy and cannabis or to the debacle around mephedrone clearly demonstrate the weakness of the ACMD. A more benign example includes the ACMD’s recommendation that foil be added to the list of paraphernalia exempted under section 9A of the MDA 1971. The recommendation was made by the ACMD in November 2010 - to date no action has been taken by the Home Secretary.
Policy should be based on evidence and the ACMD must be given a stronger mandate in developing the UK’s drug strategy. However, recognition should be given to the lack of clarity as to the role of the ACMD. The MDA 1971 states that the Council is required to examine the harm associated with drugs yet there is no definition of harm which the ACMD can use to properly evaluate the impact of a substance on an individual or society.
The reality is that we have an arbitrary system where drugs are irrationally classified28 within the three main groupings, where movement between those groupings based on evidence becomes impossible, and no consideration is given to possible alternatives for dealing with a substance.
Beyond the controversy over the role of scientific advice provided by AMCD is an underlying problem of government being prepared to base drug policy on the evidence. The Committee has referred to the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in this inquiry, the Home Office’s rejection of the report was so quick and dismissive it ran the danger of sending the signal that any critique or suggested improvement of the current policy would not be given an evaluation based on merit.
A failure to base drug policy on evidence is linked to the perception that even the most minimal deviation from the existing policy is akin to abandoning any attempt at drug control, even when policy changes may in fact improve our ability to control both drug use and supply. This block on policy development has resulted in:
- A highly limited scope to piloting innovation and to further test the findings of successful pilots.
- Preventing police forces feeling free to focus resources on local priorities rather than policing drug possession.
- A failure to effectively tackle problematic drug use through joint working between the police, NHS and drug services.
- The ability for drug policy to be mainstreamed with other policy areas to seek outcomes that bring a wider benefit to society.
4. Misinterpretation of the role of the classification system as defined by the MDA 1971
As already indicated, the legislatures responsible for the MDA 1971 were vague when it came to defining the classification system and how the ACMD assessed the harm(s) of a particular drug. The Act states that drugs should be ‘controlled’ where it appears they ‘are being or appear to them [ACMD] likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having... harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem. In recent years, the classification of drugs has been used to send ‘a message to young people’30, this is an un-evidenced approach to drug policy and undermines the government’s credibility in terms of messaging the actual harms associated with a drug. This use of the classification system to send ‘messages’ was strongly criticised by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
5. Previous Committee’s advocating an alternative approach to tackling drugs
The past decade has seen increasing calls for a review of the current legal approach to tackling drug use in our society and greater acknowledgment of the failure of the current system. The Strategy Unit Drugs Report undertaken by No 10 in 2003 identified that ‘the drugs supply market is highly sophisticated, and attempts to intervene have not resulted in sustainable disruption to the market at any level’.
This Committee’s previous inquiry in 2002 recommended that the Government initiate a discussion within the CND of alternative ways to tackle the global drug dilemma.
In addition to the above are an increasing number of high profile figures who have added their voices to the calls for reform32.
Despite these calls for reform and the growing evidence demonstrating the failure of the current system there has been no significant change to the UK’s drug policy in the last forty years.
The Committee endorses a call for decriminalisation of drug possession.
A Royal Commission is established to look at drug legislation and policy reform within the UK and that an expert body is set up to participate in or advise the Commission on alternative models for tackling drugs.
The Committee calls for a full independent Impact Assessment of UK Drug Policy as recommended by Transform Drug Policy Foundation in their submission. As part of this process a Human Rights Impact Assessment should also be undertaken, Release would refer the Committee to the submission of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy which provides a detailed analysis of the human rights implications for this policy area.
Posted by Niamh Eastwood on Friday, 27 January 2012
We have received a number of emails from cannabis activists asking for clarification on how the new Sentencing Guidelines will impact on cannabis cultivation and possession. Release provided detailed advice to the Council and has welcomed many of the changes in the guidelines as an improvement on the previous regime, but in relation to cannabis, there has only been a slight shift in approach.
With regards to possession of cannabis, there has been very little change from the current Magistrates Sentencing Guidelines. The starting point for sentencing remains the same, that is, a Band B fine. The sentencing range has changed, previously it was Band A fine (A is lower than a B fine) to 12 weeks custody (this covers sentencing for both small and large possession offences). The new guidelines range from discharge (more lenient than before) to 26 weeks in custody (harsher than before). If someone comes before the court in respect of possession of cannabis for medicinal purposes that would mitigate the sentence, and if there were no other factors could reduce it down from a Band B fine. However, it is still a criminal conviction resulting in a criminal record even with an absolute or conditional discharge.
In terms of cultivation and production of cannabis there does seem to have been real movement, but this is primarily due to the recent guidelines in the Court of Appeal case of R v Auton. This case was decided only last summer and provided much harsher guidelines for sentencing cannabis production cases involving yields of approximately 1 kilo. The guidelines stated that:
- Where there is no element of supply the sentence range is likely to be between 9 – 18 months, depending on size of operation and the defendant’s personal circumstances;
- Where there is no evidence of commercial supply for profit but there is supply to others the range is likely to be 18 months to 3 years – operation and personal circumstances again relevant;
- Where the operation is a commercial one but falls below an industrial operation the range will be 3 to 6 years.
The new guidelines are certainly an improvement on R v Auton and sentencing will be determined through a two-step approach. The first step is to determine the role of the offender and there are three potential categories – lesser role, subordinate role or leading role. The second step is the quantity of drugs involved and there are four categories:
- Category 4 – 9 plants (presumed yield 40gram per plant)
- Category 3 – 28 plants (presumed yield 40 gram per plant)
- Category 2 – operation capable of producing significant quantities for commercial use
- Category 1 - operation capable of producing industrial quantities for commercial use
The Court will then consider mitigating/aggravating factors.
In relation to someone who is producing for their own purposes, or even where it is social supply, it is likely they will fall within the ‘lesser role’ category within the new guidelines. In terms of quantity 1kg (25 plants) would fall within category 3. This would lead to a sentencing starting point of a high level community order and a sentencing range of a low level community order to 26 weeks custody, again depending on mitigating and aggravating circumstances. This is definitely an improvement on Auton but there is still a risk of imprisonment especially where there is a previous conviction.
Where someone was growing a lesser quantity (9 plants) and falls within the lesser role the guidance suggests a starting point of Band C fine, with a sentencing range of a discharge through to a medium level community order. This would then be increased/decreased through aggravating and mitigating factors. Frankly, this is only a slight departure from current Magistrates guidelines which state that the starting point for small scale cultivation is a Band C fine and the range is Band B fine to low level community order.
So overall, whilst we are pleased that our advice has been followed to some degree and has impacted on other areas of sentencing, the general approach to cannabis offences has not shifted a huge amount, and cannabis activists should be aware that the offences remain criminal, and so can result in a criminal conviction. There is also no evidence to suggest that the police will de-prioritise the policing of cannabis cultivation.
Fine A – Starting point 50% of relevant weekly income; Category range 25% - 75% of relevant weekly income
Fine B – Starting point 100% of relevant weekly income; Category range 75% - 125% of relevant weekly income
Fine C – Starting point 150% of relevant weekly income; Category range 125% - 175% of relevant weekly income
If anyone has any questions on the new guidelines please feel free to comment below and we will respond as soon as possible.
If anyone needs legal advice please contact the helpline on 0845 4500 215 or 020 7324 2989.
Posted by Niamh Eastwood on Wednesday, 18 January 2012
The decision by the Metropolitan Police to review the use of stop and search laws is certainly a welcomed development. According to a report in the Guardian last week the Met intends to halve the number of drug searches carried out. As an organisation that provides legal advice on drug laws we are well aware of how young black men are targeted by the police under s23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which permits stop and search where there is reasonable suspicion of drug possession. Often the most tenuous excuses are used to establish that suspicion.
In 2010 the Metropolitan Police carried out 250,000 stop and searches for drugs in the Greater London area, over half of those stopped and searched were under the age of 24 and both those from the black and Asian communities were significantly overrepresented. The arrest rate resulting from these stops and searches was 8%. Research carried out by Professor Alex Stevens at Kent University has found that black men are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for a drugs offence. This is despite the fact that the British Crime Survey shows that drug use is higher amongst the white population.
The same survey estimates that nearly 3 million people used an illegal substance in the last year, during the same period almost 80,000 people were found guilty of or cautioned for drug possession, a further 95,000 were dealt with under the cannabis warning scheme. This means that only 5% of those who use illicit drugs are caught up in the criminal justice system. This tends to be the unlucky or the targeted, police stop and search simply does not impact on rates of drug use in the UK.
The decision by Scotland Yard to review police powers in this area is a first step in improving community relations but more needs to be done. Young black men face unfairness throughout the criminal justice system not just in relation to stop and search. In the policing and prosecution of drug offences, Professor Stevens’ research shows that black men are 6 times more likely to be arrested and 11 times more likely to be imprisoned. The reality is that our criminal justice system still suffers from institutional racism. This issue needs to be addressed not only by the police but by prosecutors, judges and the Ministry of Justice.
The fact that senior officers in the Met are highlighting the fact that the laws are being applied disproportionately is progress. The Commissioner’s call for greater ‘training and education’ of officers on the street is certainly a starting point but recognition must be given to the huge rift that exists between the police and certain sections of our communities. This rift is invasive in a number of ways – it undermines community relations; it breaches the basic trust that should exist between an individual and the State; it acts as a barrier to young people joining the police either because of their own negative experiences or because of the judgement of their peers. This ultimately leaves us with a police force which does not reflect the ethnic diversity of our society.
Young people in these communities know that middle class white kids are not being stopped for drugs and those who are caught are generally treated leniently. The unequal application of our drugs law is a powerful reason for other alternatives to be considered. If we took drug possession out of the criminal justice system and dealt with it through education and health, well that would be 250,000 less searches a year and it may go to improve the police relationship with local communities.
Posted by Niamh Eastwood on Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Release has responded to the Sentencing Council's Consultation Paper on sentencing for drugs offences. We welcome the aim of the Council to achieve consistency in sentencing for such offences. In particular, we strongly welcome the recognition that 'drug mules' are often vulnerable individuals who sentences should not be commensurate with those who are instigators of the drugs trade.
However, we are concerned about the disproportionality of sentencing of drugs offences when compared to other, much more serious and harmful, crimes. The proposed sentence starting point for importation of a large quantity of Class A drugs is 11 years imprisonment. The current sentence starting point for rape is 8 years and for GBH is 3 years. It is shocking that someone who subjects their victim to the humiliating experience of rape will receive a shorter sentence than someone who imports 500g of heroin or cocaine (based on the Council's proposals). Whilst it can be argued that there is a risk of harm to the wider public in importation cases, this is a presumed harm in each instance rather than the direct proven harm in rape, GBH and robbery.
The lack of consistency continues in the grouping of quantities of drugs into categories, which sees no link between the amounts and the relative harms. The proposals would see Ecstasy with a street value of just £200 sentenced in the same way as £4000 worth of heroin. Even leaving aside the problems with the A, B, C classification system, this is clearly unjust. Release strongly calls for a working group made up of experts in the field to determine the correct quantity threshold based on evidence.
In addition to this we propose that the use of quantities in cases of simple possession is unhelpful and the starting point should be based on the class of drug, with quantity taken into consideration at a later stage.
We have also submitted that medical use of a drug should be included as a mitigating factor, as the persecution of people with serious health conditions cannot be in the interests of justice. This is an area of great concern to many who call the Release helpline, and needs to be considered seriously in any sentencing exercise.
In our experience, it is essential that any new guidelines are proportionate and fair and in order to achieve this they must be based on the evidence and hence the realities of the drugs trade. The proposed guidelines reflect a move in this direction but more work needs to be done to ensure sentencing reflects the real harms to society.
Read Release's full response.
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