‘Swift, certain, tough’ on drugs possession – but how can we make sure people aren’t pushed away from support?

The Government has published its white paper that promises to be ‘swift, certain, tough’ on drugs possession in an effort to address recreational use and reduce the widespread harm caused by drugs. We will be responding fully to the consultation on this paper in due course, but have some initial concerns about its proposed approach.

At The Connection, we work with people who are rough sleeping in Westminster. A recent survey of our clients showed that 73% were using substances (including alcohol) on a daily basis, yet only 22% were accessing regular support for this. At The Connection we take our time to build relationships with the people we support, helping them to stabilise their drug use and work with them according to their priorities. Substance use is often a response to trauma, and it can take time to build trust to manage these issues. It is estimated that 85% of people sleeping rough have experienced trauma in their lives.

We are pleased that the paper recognises that people with a drug dependency need specialist treatment, rather than unhelpful penalties. However, we worry that a lack of clarity about who makes this decision and how they identify those with a dependency could unfairly impact people who actually need support.

It can be very challenging for people who are rough sleeping to access support for substance misuse. The threat of sanctions for drugs possession risks pushing people even further away from the support they need. Our clients often report being treated unfairly by enforcement and we worry that they will be unhelpfully penalised.

The proposed penalty of taking away people’s passports and driving licences is an extreme response and not one which is likely to help with rehabilitation. The Government itself has also acknowledged the often counter-productive effect of financial penalties in its recent consultation on the Vagrancy Act, as asking people to pay fines they can’t afford does not help them towards recovery.

The paper does not specify what sanctions might be applied to foreign nationals. If this process results in detention or removal, people will be deterred from access treatment and support.

The proposed response aims to direct people towards treatment and drug awareness courses, yet in our experience this is not effective when done through the criminal justice system.

This comes at a time when drug-related deaths are increasing; the tough response is not working. We need better treatment services for people experiencing addiction, not stricter penalties that can make their already bad situation so much worse.

While we welcome the £780 million the Government has pledged for treatment and recovery services, to truly resolve these problems it needs to focus on exploring harm minimisation approaches that have been proven to work and are more likely to encourage people to seek help. Examples are piloting overdose prevention centres and investing in treatment services.

At The Connection, we are working to understand the barriers to accessing treatment and are advocating for services that remove these barriers and help our clients to recover and rebuild their lives away from the streets. We call on the Government to help us to make this a reality by treating drug use as a public health issue and focusing on implementing evidence-based, high-quality and accessible treatment services for all people in need of support.