The Cambridge News is today reporting that Cambridge’s MP Julian Huppert has said:
Drug users need help, not prison.
My response to this is to agree that those addicted to drugs need to be given help; however I think we do need to punish, as well as help, those who commit crimes while addicted to drugs or alcohol. We should not let those who commit crimes while on drugs or alcohol off with lesser punishments than those which would apply to others (A recent example where this happened in Cambridge); sentencing aims to protect the public and punish, deter and rehabilitate the offender, we have to do all those things, not just one of them.
The paper is asking its readers:
What do you think? Should we stop locking people up for possession of drugs? Post your comment at the bottom of the article.
Julian Huppert’s stance appears to be based on the premise that at the moment we jail people for the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. We don’t. The Magistrates Court Sentencing Guidance states that only in serious cases of individuals possessing large amounts of illegal drugs should prison be considered.
Mr Huppert calls for a change in the law so the police are not required to act against those using small quantities of illegal drugs, he added:
If we relieve the police from hunting down relatively small players and allow them to go after organised criminals we can be more effective at cutting out supply.
I am glad Mr Huppert is suggesting changing what the law requires the police to do, rather than asking the police to change their internal policies. I think the latter is a dangerous road to go down as it may lead to the police arbitrarily determining who to act against and who not to. It’s important that everyone is treated equally by the police under the law.
I think the focus ought be on helping those who have an addiction problem and on reducing serious crime such as burglaries and assaults committed by drug users. I would also like to see a society where harmful drugs are not easily accessible. I think the state has a role in protecting people from doing harm to themselves. In an ideal world everyone would be highly educated with access to the best information to make a personal judgement away from pressure from others, in such a utopia we could take a liberal approach and allow individuals rather than the state to decide what, if any, recreational drugs to take. We’re not however living in such a society.
At the moment I think one of the key differences between using alcohol and using illegal recreational drugs is the availability of information and education. The difference between a pint of beer and a pint of vodka is clear, and their respective health impacts generally understood by the population. The same cannot be said of illegal recreational drugs.
I fully support Julian Huppert’s calls for commission to be set up by the Government to carry out an evidence based review into what a proper policy should be. I would like to see that commission to assess the health risks to users of drugs and consider how they can be minimised; and seek the best ways of reducing the impact of drug related crime on wider society. I think it would be useful if the review was able to access magistrates’ court registers which record the sentences handed down for drug related offences so that the starting point would be an accurate picture of the current position.
While the review should present what the best evidence we have tells us, there will still, almost certainly be areas in which judgements need to be made. There will always be areas where we don’t have as much information as we would like. A good report would highlight what those areas are and recommend a rational approach, or even provide and evaluate various potential alternative stances. Ultimately however good the review it is right that any recommendations are considered and approved, or not, by elected politicians.
Where people need medical help with tackling their addictions that ought be easily accessible, committing a crime and ending up in court shouldn’t be the easiest route to help.
I think in all cases involving drug use by addicts the courts ought have the option of including a drug treatment order as part of the sentencing, I think the sentencing guidelines ought be updated to stress this option and probation services ought be more open about what the treatments on offer involve. I think courts need to be able to, and should, take into account, and act on, any involvement of drug use or addiction in a particular set of circumstances.
Another tweak to the sentencing guidelines I’d like considered is making supply of drugs on university campuses an explicit aggravating factor.
I would not though like to see drug treatment courses being used in an analogous way to driver education courses for those caught doing 34MPH in a 30MPH limit are now. There’s a potential risk of things like that winding people up and irritating them with little benefit which I think needs to be avoided.
If, as Julian Huppert is calling for, the police and courts cease to take an interest in small scale drug use then users are likely to come to court only if they commit other offences. It may then be that only those who need to turn to criminality to support their drug use end up in the courts and being required to attend treatment. I am concerned about those who are damaging their health through the use of illegal recreational drugs, who are not otherwise criminal, and wonder how the changes might impact that group.
Mr Huppert made his remarks following a two day international drugs conference hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform of which Huppert is one of the vice chairs.
- Julian Huppert Calls for Legalisation of Drugs – My report on Julian Huppert’s June 2011 Question to the Prime Minister.
(Those who appreciate my title might also like Julian Huppert on Police Bail)