Hoping for Rethink

With the 5 May general election date now set, it seems
increasingly unlikely that the Drugs Bill, at least in its present
form, will be passed. Due for its second reading in the Lords
during the first week of April, the bill is stalled behind several
other important pieces of legislation and looks destined to fall by
the wayside before parliament is dissolved in the run-up to the

Few drugs campaigners will lament its loss. In fact they are hoping
that a more meaningful debate on drugs can take place once all the
pre-election posturing has subsided. Despite receiving cross-party
backing, the bill has been widely condemned as too focused on law
and order and too light on prevention and treatment measures. Many
feel the bill has been used more to beef up politicians’ anti-drugs
credentials than to address the complex issues behind drug

“The problem is that with an election coming nobody wants to look
‘soft on drugs’ so you get this pre-election pantomime in which
each party competes to show who has the toughest policies,” says
Steve Rolles, information officer for drugs think tank

“When you are using the rhetoric of war you don’t want to say
anything that looks like you are not up for the scrap, so even
those who might not agree with the bill have been reluctant to
criticise it. Hopefully, after the election we can have a more
rational examination of the issues and come up with a much better

The bill, published in December, proposes measures to break the
link between drugs and crime and compel drug-takers to undergo
treatment. The more contentious proposals include:

  • A new drug intervention order to run alongside antisocial
    behaviour orders to address drug misuse by people committing
    antisocial acts.
  • A presumption that anyone found with certain quantities of
    given drugs has an “intent to supply”.
  • Powers to allow police to use X-ray or ultrasound scans on
    individuals suspected of swallowing illegal drugs, to hold
    individuals suspected of swallowing drugs in detention for 192
    hours before charge, and to test suspected offenders for class A
    drugs on arrest for a “trigger” offence. Refusal to take the test
    will be a criminal offence.
  • Making drug dealing near a school, or using children as
    couriers for drugs or drug-related money, an aggravating factor in
  • Classification of fresh “magic” mushrooms as a class A

Critics of the bill claim that it does little to address the
needs of drug users who have not committed a crime, neglects the
health and welfare dimensions of hard drug use, and risks
stigmatising all drug users by focusing solely on the links between
drugs and crime.

Many users’ support groups and drugs campaigners feel their views
have neither been sought nor taken into consideration during the
bill’s formulation. Users’ rights organisation Release, for
instance, has expressed particular disappointment at “the lack of
consultation with key stakeholders in relation to this bill which,
we believe, has led to a number of ill-thought through, and
potentially damaging, provisions being put forward”.

This lack of consultation has not discouraged Turning Point and
drug information group Drugscope from presenting their own
alternative drugs bill that highlights the need to improve current
treatment programmes and increase the effectiveness of

Their alternative bill’s proposals include:

  • Treatment services that meet complex needs, such as those of
    people who have both substance misuse and mental health
  • Better co-ordinated pathways through treatment to prevent
    people dropping out, and support as they move out of treatment to
    prevent them returning to drug or alcohol misuse.
  • A pilot programme of safe injecting rooms to reduce the risks
    of overdose and to ensure needles are safely disposed of, and an
    expansion of heroin-prescribing to support the most chaotic drug
  • More support and training for GPs working with drug users.

The most widespread concerns about the drugs bill, however,
relate to its provisions to extend police powers and potentially to
erode the rights of those arrested for a drugs-related

“We’d like to see parts of the bill dropped,” says Natasha Vromen,
campaigns and public affairs officer at Drugscope. “The burden of
proof required for ‘intent to supply’ seems to go against the
principle that you are innocent until proved guilty. We also have
concerns over allowing the police to conduct drugs tests at the
point of arrest.”

Such views were recently given heavyweight backing when the Joint
Parliamentary Human Rights Committee published a report that
concluded the bill “does not inspire confidence that human rights
compatibility has been a matter of central concern in the
formulation of the policy and the drafting of the

In particular the committee criticised the bill for not stipulating
the exact amounts of drugs that will trigger the assumption of
“intent to supply”; and its lack of safeguards to ensure that
refusing an intimate search, X-ray or ultrasound scan is not used
against a defendant in court. It also raised concerns that
compulsory drug testing on arrest and compulsory intervention
orders might contravene an individual’s right to refuse

“Our concern is that people who have been compulsorily drug-tested
on arrest are effectively coerced, by threat of criminal sanction,
into agreeing to treatment before being charged with any criminal
offence and without prior judicial authorisation,” states the

Unfortunately, the report was not published until after the bill
had already passed through the Commons – timing that Steve Rolles
regards as “rather bizarre”.

“It is certainly very convenient for the government that this legal
scrutiny emerged only after the bill had been debated and voted
on,” he says.

But with the bill’s destiny now dependent on the result of the
forthcoming election and then on the autumn schedule for
legislation, it looks as though MPs will have the chance to peruse
the report at their leisure.

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