Drugs - It's Time for Better Laws

Release decided to launch the 'Drugs - It's Time for Better Laws' campaign to highlight the negative impact of the current policy and the need for change. This is why:


In 2010 nearly 80,000 [1] people in England and Wales were found guilty of or cautioned for possession of an illegal drug - most were young, black or poor.  The young in particular, are affected by these laws with 24,000[2] being cautioned or prosecuted for possession of a drug, primarily cannabis.  Since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 40 years ago, millions of people have been criminalised; in the last ten years alone nearly 1 million people have been cautioned or prosecuted in England and Wales for possession of drugs.  There is no evidence that the risk of criminal sanctions deters people from using drugs[3].  The harms caused by criminalising large sections of society are well established and lead to significant wasted resources.  At a time when the country is facing the deepest spending cuts in modern history wasting enormous resources to police and prosecute individuals for drug possession is unacceptable.


A criminal record can have a serious impact on educational aspirations.  Young people can avoid entering professions such as health, law and working with young or vulnerable people because their record may prevent them from gaining a job in those areas.  For those employed as teachers, doctors or nurses an arrest and conviction for drug possession can result in them being barred from working in their profession[4].  Just an arrest for a drugs offence can make it extremely difficult for people to travel to other countries.  Consider the economic costs of this wasted potential.  Criminalising people who use drugs leads to greater social exclusion and stigmatisation making it much more difficult to play a productive role in society.


Decriminalisation of possession of drugs is one way of overcoming the negative impact of the current system. Portugal adopted a decriminalisation model in 2001 - this saw the introduction of a civil system of dealing with all cases of drug possession.  People caught in possession still face sanctions such as a fine, or referral to a treatment programme if they use drugs problematically, however they do not receive a criminal record.  Since the introduction of the new model in 2001, Portugal has seen a small rise in the number of people using drugs (there has also been increase in neighbouring countries), however the number of young people using drugs has reduced, as has the number of people who use drugs problematically.


Release supports decriminalisation on pragmatic grounds.  The current system of criminalisation creates harms and does not deter drug use.  Drug use is a matter of health and education not criminalisation.  It is time to stop pointlessly criminalising large sections of society.


Niamh Eastwood


[1] Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice Annual Report 2010, Conviction Tables, Table A.4 (http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/statistics-and-data/criminal-just...)


[2] Ibid.


[3] Stevens, A. & Reuter, P., An Analysis of UK Drug Policy, 2007, UKDPC, page 10 - found that there was little evidence that drug policy impacted on number of users.


[4] The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 details how a criminal record becomes ‘spent', that is not necessary to disclose, however this does not apply to a range of professions who will always be required to disclose a record.