01 May 2007

Turkeys voting for Christmas

How Region Wide Drugs Protocols are exceeding the law - and abandoning the gains of the past ten years.

Next year, it will be a decade since Ruth Wyner and John Brock were arrested and charged for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

During and after their case, many organisations and individuals worked long and hard to ensure that their dreadful experience would not result in the mass exclusion of drug users who were homeless from the limited provision available to them.

The ‘Wintercomfort’ case threw up some difficult challenges. Was it possible to have known drug users on site? To what extent could organisations preserve client confidentiality? Did all known suppliers need to be reported to the police? Was it legitimate to place sharps bins in hostels?

In the face of this uncertainty, the response from the Government and other key bodies was pitiful. Senior staff at the Rough Sleepers Unit refused to countenance the use of sharps boxes in hostels. Government advisors would not endorse models of working with ongoing users which would acknowledge use on site. And in 2001 the Government worsened the situation by passing the “Police and Criminal Justice Act” which extended Section 8(d) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This measure extended the obligation on occupiers and managers to stop the use of all controlled drugs on site rather than just the use of cannabis and opium.

In the face of unhelpful bureaucrats, intransigent Government ministers and voluntary sector workers turned Government lackeys, the situation for housing organisations working with drug users looked terrible.

But thanks to effective networking, proactive lobbying and dedication on the part of a small number of organisations, the legal and practice situation was salvaged,

• Thanks to campaigns of lobbying and letter writing, the amendment to Section 8 was suspended and ultimately repealed. It never came in to force;

• Thanks to the brave and innovative provision developed by a number of housing providers, a model of provision working in a “Eyes Wide Open” manner with active drug users;

• Thanks to resource development and training provision, a huge number of housing providers are aware of what they can and can’t legally do.

• Organisations can and have been able to work with ongoing drug users, whilst maintaining client confidentiality and maintaining good relationships with service users, the local community and the Police.

So where’s the problem?

Given the above battles that have been fought and the success of them, it seems inconceivable that organisations would voluntarily surrender these hard-won gains.

Yet they are.

The new and worrying development is where region-wide drugs protocols have been put in place. Several areas are in the throes of developing such a protocol. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing so. Indeed, such a Protocol can and should provide a safe umbrella under which all providers can legally and safely operate.

But at least one of these new Drugs Protocols imposes restrictions not currently required under the law. There is an expectation that local agencies sign up to the protocol. The requirements of the Protocol exceed the legislative requirements. And the Protocol restricts models of provision that other services have implemented lawfully and successfully.

A case in point is the Newcastle Temporary Accommodation Drug Management Protocol. Recently rolled out across all temporary housing providers, the protocol makes the following demands of signatories:

• Reporting all episodes of people possessing illicit drugs on site to the police;
• Confiscation and reporting of all paraphernalia to the police;
• Reporting any suspicion of supply to the police;
• Report use of any class A drugs to the Police

None of these requirements are current legal requirements and it is perfectly feasible to implement safe, lawful and effective drugs policy without such rules being in place.

If an individual organisation chooses to adopt a strict drugs policy, or exceed the demands of the law in terms of sharing information with the police, that is very much up to them. Some organisations do not wish to adopt more flexible and inclusive policy and that is their right. A good few of these have adopted exclusionary policies because it reflects the needs of their clients. They are seeking to work with people who are now drug free, usually after a period of dependency. Their policy and practice reflect the needs of their clients and rightly so. But this is not always the case. Other organisations have adopted harsh policies out of ignorance, others out of fear or prejudice. But to date it has primarily been on an organisation-by-organisation basis.

The idea that a City-wide or County-wide policy should turn its face on the gains of the past few years is deeply depressing. And it makes one wonder have the last few years all been in vain. So it seems now that the Government no longer needs to pass new, restrictive legislation – the turkeys are basting themselves and jumping in to the oven.

To view a copy of the Newcastle Temporary Accommodation Drug Management Protocol and supporting documents please click HERE.

To view a critique of this Protocol by Kevin Flemen/KFx click HERE and scroll down to the relevant policies.

Coming soon: a model sample drugs policy…details coming soon.