Jason Kew, the Centre’s Senior Innovative Practice Officer (and formerly a serving Chief Inspector with Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit as lead for Drugs and Harm Reduction Innovation) reflects on The National Drugs Summit that took place on Thursday 19th May in London.
Drugs policy has received considerable attention recently, with the publication of Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs, a new 10-year strategy from the Government and on Thursday 19th of May a National Drug Summit in Westminster brought together key figures from the sector.
The speeches at the summit provided a stark reminder of the problems we are trying to solve. For example, between 2019 and 2020, there have been 4,553 drug related deaths and 17,000 poisonings, and across the UK, 1 in 5 children and young people aged 16-24 have used a controlled drug in the last year.
Dame Carol Black highlighted how cocaine and cannabis use is increasing among 16-24 year olds, and raised concern over how schools are frequently responding to this issue with exclusions.
Notably, speakers at the summit - Bryony Gordon, author and journalist, Kirsty Day, the Nelson Trust, Fiona Spargo Mabbs and Dr Ed Day - all gave short and timely speeches summarising that addiction is indiscriminate, which takes a whole system responsibility to tackle. My favourite quote, from Fiona Spargo Mabbs ‘that if we are truly going to reduce demand, then we need to intervene before that demand has begun’, demonstrates the need for early drug education and more formalised routes for diversion.
The summit was also an opportunity to hear the direction that the Government intends to take, including extremely welcome investment in the treatment sector, the prominence given to diversionary approaches and the attention given to the need for research and innovation.
However, Kit Malthouse, Minister for Crime and Policing, announced a forthcoming white paper on diversion, education and awareness titled ‘Tougher Consequences’. He focused on how repeat drug offences will be tackled with sanctions, including the removal of passports, driving licences and random drug testing to incentivise behaviour change.
The emphasis of these proposals seems punitive and enforcement led. This, to us, seems to be antithetical to the evidence which tells us that if someone is ready to reach out for treatment for their substance misuse problems (which is often interlined with complex issues such as mental health and trauma) they are much less likely to do so if they fear that disclosing their drug use will lead to a punitive outcome. Punitive approaches that increase stigma can prevent access to the necessary treatment and recovery routes to address these issues, and end up producing the opposite outcomes of those intended.
The future of drug diversion?
The drugs summit also raised awareness of new areas of innovation within drug diversion, with its reach extending into other areas beyond justice, such as housing and education, where punitive responses to drugs can be found.
Professor Nic Beech, the University of Middlesex Vice Chancellor, set out their plans for the Universities UK Drug Task Force, and stressed the importance of understanding student drug use in our universities. This new taskforce will involve experts co-developing with students a model of diversion and education programmes. This is a positive reaction to a growing concern of problematic drug use and its impact on young people and their education.
Good drug diversion
Diversion is now a permanent feature of drug policy. But there is still work to be done drawing out what exactly is good diversion. At the Centre for Justice Innovation, we are producing a set of practice principles around police-led diversion for drug poession, that will enhance and improve existing practice in this new and exciting field. We will continue examine the big questions to unpack how the police should use this golden opportunity to reach a huge number of young and old, recreational and dependant users throughout society.
If you are interested in the support we offer to practitioners delivering diversion please click here.
To learn more about our policy positions on drugs please read our response to the Home Affairs committee inquiry into drugs.