In recent months there has arguably been a change in the approach to the way in which drug use in the UK is to be handled from a legal standpoint. The two examples that highlight this most profoundly are the increased funding made available to Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs); and the Psychoactive Substances Bill designed to combat the growing use of ‘legal highs’.
Seven years ago the London Family Drug and Alcohol Court was established to pioneer a new approach to child protection cases where either, or both parents are suffering from problems with substance abuse. The FDAC was so successful that subsequent FDACs were opened in Milton Keynes, Gloucester, and Buckinghamshire. FDACs tack a rigorous and proactive approach of fortnightly appearances where those attending are encouraged and supported to overcome their addiction, with the ultimate goal of having their children returned to their care, having stabilised their lives.
If a social worker believes a parent would benefit from the scheme, they are offered the opportunity to attend an FDAC hearing, where they are assigned a specialist judge, who would remain constant through all future hearings, and a dedicated team of social workers, drugs counsellors, mental health experts and domestic violence specialists.
In February 2015 the Government announced that £2.5 million would be made available to open FDACs across England and Wales. The statistics support their effectiveness. FDACs are more successful at keeping families together than the traditional approach, with an average saving of £76,000 per family over three years. A 2014 study by Brunel University found that 40% of mothers and 25% of fathers who had gone through the FDAC process were no longer dependent on drugs and alcohol, compared to 25% of mothers and 5% of fathers who used the Family Courts. This equates to large savings for Local Authorities as children spend less time in care (an average saving of £4,000 per child) and savings in other departments as there is less need for drug treatment, probation and health care.
The expansion of this approach across England and Wales, suggests a new, more positive way of dealing with those dependent, specifically on drugs. By offering an alternative route back to stability, incentivised by the potential return of a child, the Government supported a way to tackle not only the substance abuse itself, but mitigate the harmful consequences of that use on the family unit.
Of course, FDACs do not apply, nor will they work for everyone affected by drug and alcohol addiction, but for those to whom it can make a difference, it is a welcome departure from the damaging and arguably futile use of criminalisation of those impacted as a solution to a complicated medical problem.
The second development is the publication of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which will make illegal all substances that affect the human brain. There are some exceptions to this; caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, tobacco, food and medical products are all exempt, as are previously banned substances. Additionally, the broad and ambiguous nature of the Bill, although perhaps necessary to combat the swift and changing nature of current ‘legal highs’, is potentially open to abuse.
The Government has banned more than 500 new drugs since 2010, with the process for identifying these proving too labour intensive.
Professor David Nutt, former Chief Drugs Adviser to the Government, has spoken out in opposition to the Bill describing it as “utterly pointless”.
Furthermore, he argues:
“It will make no difference. People will just go back to cocaine and heroin. If you close down the head shops, people will just go to the back streets and it will all be underground. It is an extraordinarily simplistic and retrograde step. It won't reduce harm, it may well increase harm.”
Professor Nutt also suggests that legal highs are “considerably safer” than class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
The dangers of closing so called ‘head shops’ and forcing distribution underground is a concern echoed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who also raise concerns regarding the potential criminalisation of young people for social supply; when one person buys for a group and then passes on their share.
The Bill will impose a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of all (although as stated earlier, not in fact all) psychoactive substances. The proposed maximum sentence for these new offences is seven years imprisonment.
There is however a notable omission in the new list of proposed offences: possession. Under the Bill it will not be an offence to be in possession of a psychoactive substance. This is a major departure from previous drug legislation, which targets possession as well as supply.
This may signal a change in the way the ‘war on drugs’ is to be fought, with a greater focus placed on the source of the problem, production and supply, rather than targeting and criminalising the vulnerable drug users, whilst ignoring the societal and personal reasons for their substance use.
Although this may be the case for new psychoactive substances, drugs previously banned by existing legislation will continue to carry criminal sanctions for possession, as per existing legislation. Given traditional views on how to tackle drug use, any alteration in the law for possession for traditional drugs would surely cost significant political capital, and create a backlash few politicians are willing to risk.
However, the Bill has been met with some resistance. In August 2015 there was a mass protest in Parliament Square where approximately 100 people participated in the simultaneous inhalation of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
In summary, the Bill will almost inevitably be flawed in some respect, a fixed law may ultimately be unable to regulate a fluid social phenomenon, and I expect there to be a few amendments in the coming months and years if the Bill is passed. However, the shift in focus away from drug users toward production and supply, and the increase in funding for FDACs suggest that there might just be a change in attitude regarding the best way to tackle drug use in the UK.