UK drug strategy overhaul to focus on recovery not prison

By Ione Wells & Jack Fenwick
BBC News

Published
Image source, Getty Images

The government will announce a new drugs strategy on Monday overhauling the drug recovery and treatment system, the BBC has learned.

The announcement is expected to pledge £700m over three years to tackle problem drug use.

Measures will include a large focus on diversion, a tactic designed to remove drug users from the criminal justice system and get them into healthcare.

Ministers are also set to announce investment to tackle drug gangs.

The overhaul has been drawn together by at least six government departments, the BBC understands.

It will form part of a wider week of law and order announcements for the government, which a source involved in the drug strategy said had frustrated some of those who worked on it - who wanted to make clear these measures would lead to fewer crime-focused drug policies. The government has been asked to comment.

The diversion strategy is expected to be twofold - short prison sentences for drug use will be complemented with recovery programmes and there will be less emphasis on prosecuting people caught with substances.

In Scotland, prosecutors can refer people accused of drugs offences for "diversion" and their Lord Advocate said people caught with Class A drugs could be given a police warning instead of facing prosecution - a move the Conservatives had previously said amounted to "de facto decriminalisation."

'Chronic health condition'

In his party conference speech, Boris Johnson accused Labour of "decriminalising" hard drugs after the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Scotland's decision was "probably the right thing to do" but was an "independent decision".

It is understood there will also be more emphasis in the strategy on helping drug users leaving prison to find work and safe housing.

The Times newspaper has reported drug treatment courses could be offered to those whose offending was fuelled by drugs, giving people the option of changing their behaviour or facing tougher punishments.

One source heavily involved in forming the review told the BBC "ministers have now accepted this [problem drug use] is a chronic health condition".

However, they added that because of concerns over how that would be viewed by the public and Conservative voters, it was unlikely the government would want it to be the focus of the announcement. The Home Office have been asked to comment.

As well as an overhauling of drug treatment plans, ministers are expected to outline more investment to tackle county lines drug gangs - urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines.

The strategy has been drawn up as a response to the Dame Carol Black review of drugs, which reported in the summer and made 32 recommendations. The BBC understands the government has accepted at least 31 of these.

The Times also reported the government was seeking to amend its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to give judges extra powers to order drug testing of anyone serving a community sentence.

It said drug testing could be required on arrest for all crimes, and the government could outline plans to use drug dealers' phones to identify and support addicts - and warn people they were not anonymous when buying drugs.

The BBC has been told there will be no announcements on heroin-assisted treatment or drug consumption rooms. Politicians in Scotland have been pushing for the latter to be introduced but a source involved in forming the drugs strategy said Number 10 and the Home Office were "very against" them and a move in that direction may have needed a change to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Both departments have been asked to comment.

Those drawing up the drug strategy were instructed to find ways of introducing new policies without having to make major change to legislation.

It is also understood there will likely be no specific funding in this strategy for prisons to replace methadone with "abstinence-based rehab", a plan reported by The Telegraph newspaper earlier this week.

However, Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, is expected to publish a separate strategy on problem drug use in prisons in a government White Paper.

A government source told the BBC this would allow governors in prison to be more empowered to take action against drug use.

The Times reported it could also involve further "airport-style" security in prisons for visitors and staff to prevent drug smuggling.

A source also told BBC News ministers were set to announce a consultation on a "Victims' Law" that could enshrine victims' rights in law.

One plan piloted already has given rape victims the automatic right to pre-record evidence in trials - which has been taking place at several crown courts in Leeds, Liverpool, London and Durham.

Separately, the Law Commission - an independent body that advises government - is expected to release its review into hate crime soon to explore how to make existing laws more effective.

On Saturday, the children's charity Plan International UK responded to reports the Law Commission was set to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence by saying the government "must act swiftly on this recommendation".

The Telegraph reported the review would stop short of making misogyny a hate crime, which some campaigners had called for.