In Britain, people caught possessing any illicit drug, including heroin and cocaine, are allowed to avoid court, prison, and a criminal record.
The Durham and Avon & Somerset police departments (in Durham and Bristol, accordingly) have launched a new diversion program that gives people caught with the drug a chance to avoid automatic criminalization. Instead of being imprisoned, drug users can attend a three-and-a-half-hour drug education class run by a local drug service. If the course is successfully completed and a certificate is obtained, the charges are automatically dismissed and the drug offender can go home. The past criminal record of an accused person plays no role.
This is the first time since 1916 that the British caught carrying illegal drugs have escaped the possibility of jail. Police say that since the launch of the program in April, 80 percent of those detained for drug possession have taken up the offer and completed the course. Over half of them were picked up for carrying marijuana.
However, this scheme is a one-time offer—once you use your opportunity to come out unscathed, you cannot avoid prosecution for getting caught next time.
In Bristol, police reported 215 offenders who had been offered an alternative to receiving a criminal record. Forty of those people were youngsters who agreed to attend a special youth version of the educational course.
Durham launched the program a little earlier, in April of last year. The diversion program is more wide-ranging there—it has also targeted those guilty of several high-volume offenses, such as theft and violence. Furthermore, a person caught in possession of hard drugs gets the option of entering into a four-month contract in exchange for a suspended sentence. If the offender does not get into any trouble and humbly attends a series of drug awareness classes and community work programs during the contract period, the drug charge is expunged. Police say that only three out of 74 have failed the program.
When it comes to marijuana, Durham pot lovers can sleep peacefully. Last year, the authorities announced that police would no longer arrest people for possessing small amounts of cannabis or low-level home cultivation. And although cannabis use remains a crime, people have an opportunity to keep out of the criminal justice system.
However, the Home Office is supposed to get accustomed to the ways of decriminalizing drugs, which it prefers to call “diversion” programs to prevent tabloid sensationalism. If the pilots are given positive evaluations, it could be a background for the first real steps towards the decriminalization of drugs in Britain. In the near future, the Home Office and Public Health England could set up a national program similar to those running in Durham and Bristol. For now, British stoners will be content with this concept of quasi-decriminalization because the government has no plans to legalize marijuana anytime soon.