24 December 2002

Giving beggars the Bird.

Conflicting reports came out regarding comments made by John Bird reported in the press. His comments were in an article by rightwing thinktank Politeia. The thinktanks advisory group includes notable liberal thinkers Michael Howard, Francis Maude and David Willets.

Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, is said to have argued that giving money to people who beg perpetuates the problem, and cannot offer it a solution. Instead he argued for the resources to be made available to address the problem and, when required, coercion be used to prevent people rough sleeping and begging.

John Bird rose to his current position, some would argue, through the legitimised giving that is the Big Issue. And with the Big Issue's lack of move on provision, some would also argue that the Big Issue serves much the same pupose as begging - and with the same problem of entrapping people in a lifestyle.

A few people might even have the timerity to note that staff at the Big Issue enjoy sick leave and paid holidays unlike the vendors, on whose endeavours the Big Issue is propped.

But only the truly cynical would note that with sales in decline, the failure of the Big Issue in LA, and staff redundancies at the Issue, driving people off begging and onto the issue could be the sales boost that they need.

Readers should also remember similar statements made by, amongst others Louise Casey. This heralded the start of the "Begging for Change" campaign, where people could give to charities rather than people who beg. And again the same arguments were used about how people would spend the money on drink and other drugs.

In an ideal world, people would not beg to buy heroin. But with restrictive prescribing practices, people punitively excluded from services, and lack of access for people who are homeless, it is more than understandable that some people will spend some of what they earn on substances.

People are more than entitled to choose to give to people who beg, or choose to give to charities. And, especially at this time of year, I'd rather give to the person on the street than the one in the office.

So happy humbug to you all.

Staffordshire Police and their amazing drug testing computer

It has been widely reported in the press that Staffordshire Police have been using a new drug testing computer to identify people who have been in contact with drugs. Rather than rely on the tried and tested approach of using sniffer dogs, passive or otherwise, Staffs Police wanted to go one better and use Communities Against Drugs (CAD) Money to buy £40,000 of computer equipment to search for people who use drugs.

The big difference between the dogs and the computer is that the computer cannot run around, sniff, and sit down when it smells drugs. Normally, such canine action would give the police the reasonable grounds for a stop and search.

Instead, the police need to ask for permission to swab with you. While a dog sticking it's nose in your crotch has held not to be assault, unwanted swabbing by the police in this situation would not be acceptable.

The twist here is that, while the police cannot force anyone to consent to a swab test, they are suggesting that unwillingness to do so would be considered grounds for suspicion, and so would mean that you may be questioned further.

Liberty has condemned the scheme, but, strangely, old comrades at Release have been strangely silent on the subject.

The following information may be of use too:

1) You are not obliged to give a swab test to the police. Any attempt in this situation to get a swab test result without your consent would constitute assault.
2) Simply refusing to give a swab test would not, itself, constitute grounds for searching on the basis on the grounds of suspicion. While a person could consent to being searched, it seems probable that the police would be exceeding their powers if they attempted to enforce a search based on a refusal to be swabbed.
3) The article says that the machine tests for a range of drugs and includes heroin and rohypnol. It seems likely that the machine, which gives very simple answers, would be unable to differentiate between various benzopidiazepines or opiates; hence there is a high risk of false positives for people who have used or come into contact with lawful substances. We would therefore be concerned that the presence of a positive result would still not in itself be grounds for a search.
4) Landlords in this situation are being put in an intolerable position. The licensing regulations require them to act reasonably to stop use and supply on their premises, and failure to do so could jeopardise a license. But what the police are doing here is coercive and the Institute of Inkeepers should make representations.
5) A positive test can not be used in this situation to prove past possession. But a statement admitting to past possession could be used to convict. So anyone submitting to a test and testing positive should make no statement and should not admit to past-possession.
6) Please pass this on to other people in the area, so that they know their rights.

08 September 2002

Cannabis, The draft ACPO guidance and what it all means:

On the 4th September 2002, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) launched draft guidelines on the policing of cannabis. ACPO had been asked to undertake this task as part of the ongoing review and revision of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The draft Guidelines were announced by Andy Hayman, deputy assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police and chairman of Acpo's drugs sub-committee. They were widely reported in the press, but the full implications have yet to be considered.

The key proposals in the ACPO guidance are as follows:
  • when a person is found to be in possession of cannabis for a first time in a year, they may have their cannabis confiscated and be given a "formal warning."
  • if the person is found in possession of cannabis a second time in the same year, they may again have their cannabis confiscated and be given a second "formal warning."
  • A third offence within the same year will not be treated the same way. Ignoring previous warning will be considered an "aggravating" factor and the person will face arrest and could end up facing a range of penalties and a criminal record.
  • Other "aggravating" factors may also result in arrest. These include:
    • possession of cannabis by someone under the age of 18
    • refusal to hand over cannabis to the police
    • when people are found in possession of large quanities of cannabis, this may also result in arrest. (According to Sky News, the guidelines will say that quantities of up to three grammes will be considered to be for personal use. )
  • other "aggravated" offences may include possession/use near schools, blowing smoke in a police officer's face and probably other, as yet unspecified actions.
What happens next?
It is important to stress that the ACPO guidance is, currently only DRAFT guidance and will be going out for consultation before it becomes any more than a draft.

As well as this process of consultation, several pieces of legislation will also need to be passed by Parliament before the changes can come into effect.

Until the full text of the draft guidance is made availble, it is very difficult to assess the full facts.Unfortunately the ACPO website is not up-to-date and contains no mention of the draft guidance.

Based on what we do know, the following key areas of concern have been identified:
1) Record Keeping and the Courts
In order to make this system work, police forces will have to maintain centralised records of everyone receiving a "formal warning" for cannabis possession. Without this, it will not be possible to determine whether someone has had previous warnings for cannabis possession that year.

In turn this will require that the Police can verify a person's identity before giving them a formal warning. This process will require an amount of Police time to administer the system. It also has civil liberty implications. At the point where the warning is given, a person has not been convicted of an offence. It will be interesting to find out how long this information about warnings will be stored on police computers, and what status this information has. Will it, for example, be passed on to the Criminal Records Bureau, or other bodies.

It is also not clear if this information would be put before a court at a third offence. So if found in possession for a third time, and charged and taken before the court, would the previous two "formal warnings" also be brought up in court. Presumably the courts would be aware that people being brought before them for simple possession would have had previous warnings, and so may be inclined to apply harsher punishments.

2) A return to the Sus Laws?
This law will not be enforced consistently. People who are stopped and searched more frequently will use up their first two strikes faster. So young people, especially from Black and Minority Ethnic groups are likely to be put before the courts more frequently than others people. They get stopped and searched more; they will therefore be found in possession of cannabis more frequently.

3) Disproportionate effect on young people:
Young people already labour under a "Three strikes" law - the Crime and Disorder Act. This piece of legislation means that for a first offence, a young person may receive a reprimand; for a second offence they can receive a final warning and be refered to a Youth Offending Team. For a third offence they will be put before the court. So a young person who is found in possession of cannabis will, under the ACPO guidance, always be arrested. If this is their third offence they will be put before the court and, as a result will receive a criminal record of convicted. The police will have no discretion in this area. We will see a large number of young people criminalised at an early age, with the attendant problems for education and employment.

This will also have an impact on police/school relations. Schools have frequently been developing effective and flexible responses with local police, where police exercise discretion about how and where to intervene. This discretion would be removed by the guidance.

4) Why not just use existing legislation properly?
Much of the so-called "aggravated factors" are covered in other legislation anyway. If someone blows smoke in an officers face, that can be construed as assault. Other behaviour may be construed as breach of the peace, nuisance and so on. If these offences are taking place, they can be dealt with through existing legislation. There is no need to create new, cannabis-specific offences to deal with these issues. What this is really about is the police, desperate to maintain the power to arrest people for cannabis offences.

5) Who makes up drug policy anyway?
One of the most sinister aspects of this is that ACPO seem to have been given carte blanche to write drugs policy. Drug policy should be in the hands of democratic structures. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) should advise Parliament. Parliament, accountable to the people should then develop policy and law and Government departments spend money in accordance with the will of Parliament. Instead, cannabis policy has been handed to ACPO who have written guidance that flies in the face of both the ACMD recomendations and the recomendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

6) This situation is actually worse than before!
Lets assume that these changed go through in the way that ACPO are proposing. Before this, police officers could choose to arrest or not as they saw fit. A number of forces operated informal confiscate and warn policies and, under the Lambeth pilot this approach was formalised. Under the ACPO guidance this discretion is removed. The Guidance will direct police to arrest for a third offence, and allow arrest for a first and second offence. The net result may well be worse than the situation before and finally gives lie to the idea that we are seeing a more liberal approach to cannabis enforcement.

For further information please see:
The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/drugs/Story/0,2763,785766,00.html
Media Awareness Project: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v02/n1652/a04.html?181
Met Police report in "The Job" http://www.met.police.uk/job/job883/1.htm
Drugscope: http://www.drugscope.org.uk/news_item.asp?a=1&intID=829

Lifeline, injecting kits and the paraphernalia laws

Lifeline, the Manchester-based drugs charity, has been threatened with prosecution under the UKs out-dated paraphernalia legislation. The Charity wants to see a reduction in the spread of Hepatitis C by reducing the incidence of equipment-sharing amongst injecting drug users. Whilst the distribution of clean needles and syringes has ensured that the UK has achieved a relatively low level of HIV amongst injecting drug users, agencies have been warning for a number of years that Hep C will pose a serious threat to health. This has been exacerbated by the sharing of filters, cookers and water.

Lifeline sought to tackle this by proposing the distribution of sterile injecting packs including sterile cookers, filters, swabs and citric acid.

Much of this paraphenalia is already being given out by Lifeline or other bodies. What Lifeline would be doing is bringing the equipment together into on package. However, Greater Manchester Police have warned Lifeline that they would be prepared to prosecute the charity if they proceed with the scheme at present.

Ironically, one of the few recomendations from the Home Affairs Select Committee to be accepted by the Home Office was that the current Section 9 paraphernalia laws needed to be amended as they were contrary to effective harm reduction.

Agencies have currently walked an uneasy line between breaking the paraphernalia laws and delivering effective harm reduction. Given the tardiness which the Government adopts when it comes to revising drugs law, agencies have felt compelled to distribute equipment legally, often seeking approval from local police forces first.

However, Lifeline have been advised by Greater Manchester Police that they could face prosecution if they proceed with the scheme.

Organisations who are confused about the legal position of paraphernalia should read the briefing document in the resources section called "Injecting Equipment and Sharps Bins."

For further information and resources see the links below:

For information about citric acid and setting up local agreements go to:
the Exchange: http://www.saferinjecting.org/citric/citric.html

For coverage of the Lifeline scheme: http://www.lifeline.org.uk

Property People Magazine: http://www.ppmagazine.co.uk/349.html
Guardian: http://society.guardian.co.uk/publichealth/story/0,11098,730633,00.html
Third Sector: http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news_story.cfm?ID=3806

21 May 2002

Home Affairs Select Commitee Report on drug policy and legislation:

The long awaited Home Affairs Select Committee report into drugs legislation and policy will be publishedon Wednesday the 22nd May 2002.

After ten months of oral and written submissions, the report will offer a series of recomendations to Government on legal and policy issues.

However, anyone expecting a very radical report is liable to be disappointed. Similarly, anyone expecting to see a dramatic change in drug policy or law on the back of this report is also likely to be let down.

According to the rumours and leaks that have been made to date, the most likely suggestions to be made in this report include:

a) a proposal that cannabis be moved from Class B to Class C.
b) an exploration of the value of injecting rooms
c) more flexible prescribing regimes
d) more interventions for crack users
e) better, more systematic access to treatment.

In addition to this we may, if the Commitee were feeling bold, see the following more daring suggestions:

a) calls for a new offence of peer-supply, to differentiate between large scale supply for profit and low level supply,
b) call for Ecstasy and LSD to be reclassified to B
c) criticism of Section 8 of the MDA.

However, in his recent series of cosy fireside chats with Jeremy Paxman, Tony Blair made it clear that decriminalisation was not on the agenda. Despite the proximity of the Select Commitee report, the following exchange made it all to clear what the parameters on Government thinking are:

Are you having a wholesale re-think of your drugs policy?

No, but what we are doing is trying to make sure, in particular, that where people are engaged in crime, where they are persistent offenders that they get a choice, as quickly as we can, which is a choice either to take drug rehabilitation treatment or they are liable to go to custody, into prison. Already with these drug treatment testing orders, they have been very successful, about 5,500 to 6,000 of them. For example, there is a young man in Oxford that went on one of these drug treatment testing orders, vehicle crime in the city centre of Oxford was cut by 59% when he had the chance to go into residential rehabilitation rather than back out on the street again. I'm trying to look at now is to get to a situation where if somebody is up for bail and they are a persistent offender and they have a drug problem, then again it is made a measure of whether they should get bail or not as to whether they are prepared to accept drug treatment.

You are not considering decriminalising any drugs?


Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/audiovideo/programmes/newsnight/archive/newsid_1988000/1988166.stm

So it would seem that even if the Select Commitee report called for a declassification of cannabis, such a call would be rejected by the Prime Minister.

In many respects, the report, although keenly anticipated, is inconsiquential. Body after body has called for change. Some of these, such as the ACMD, have a statutory role in informing drug policy. They have, at various points, called for change on aspects of legislation and these have been disregarded. The Police Foundation Report was similarly disregarded. As a result there is little to suggest that the reccomendations from the Select Commitee will be given any greater weight than those that have gone before.

If, in your excitement, you wish to view the text of the report, it will be available from 10.00am on the 22nd of May at the following website.


Responses to the document will be described here as soon as possible after the launch.