Policing of people who use drugs in the UK has had to change rapidly during the COVID-19 crisis. Even in normal times enforcement of criminalisation of people who use drugs is expensive and counterproductive. In the evolving COVID-19 crisis the key arguments for ending it are more pertinent than ever, particularly for the most vulnerable people who use drugs. What is happening, and what needs to be done?
Demands on scarce Police resources
Enforcing criminalisation of people who use drugs is a substantial drain on police resources – with few, if any, tangible positive outcomes. The array of new demands on the police during the unfolding COVID-19 crisis make the need to de-prioritise enforcement of low level drug offences more pressing. The police, quite simply, have far more important priorities right now.
Criminalisation has, at best, a marginal deterrent impact, but encourages high risk behaviours
The evidence that enforcement against possession of drugs is an effective deterrent is marginal at best. But we do know that enforcement can increase high risk behaviours particularly for the most at-risk populations, including people who inject drugs and people who are homeless. These are people now in situations of acute vulnerability to both transmission of the virus and its negative health effects.
Obstacles to effective health interventions
Criminalisation creates obstacles to both provision of and accessing of services. People who use drugs may be fearful of engaging with drug or emergency services for fear of legal sanctions, or that their access to illegal drug markets may be curtailed. Criminalisation makes already hard to reach populations even less accessible to service providers and outreach workers – and can restrict the ability of health professionals to offer what they believe is best practice service provision. Critically, where drug offenders end up in prison – a whole new set of risks and challenges emerges.
What is already happening and what is needed
That police practice is changing, and is taking a more pragmatic approach to people who use drugs should come as no surprise. Front-line police have a unique understanding of the dynamics and impacts of day-to-day enforcement and have been a key driver in the move away from more punitive approaches towards more tolerant health-based approaches. A growing number of police authorities have already implemented ‘diversion schemes’ in recent years, under which people caught in possession of drugs for personal use are ‘diverted’ into relevant health or social programs. This is a model that is fast moving towards adoption as best practice across all forces.
If the COVID-19 crisis forces us to reevaluate some of entrenched and harmful thinking about how society addresses the challenges of people who use drugs in situations of acute vulnerability, then perhaps something positive can come of the tragedy. We are, in reality, half way towards ending criminalisation of people who use drugs already. There has never been a more critical moment to show leadership and formalise the process to enable vital public health measures to be implemented that will protect the most vulnerable, and in turn, all of us.