Being given a criminal record for the possession of drugs (even if it does not involve being sent to prison) can have wide-ranging negative impacts on your life, from your job prospects to your family relationships. For Class A, B, and C drugs respectively, a conviction for possession could result in a seven, five or two year prison sentence plus an unlimited fine. However, the enforcement of drug laws is devolved to local police forces, meaning they can choose whether or not to pursue a conviction.

In recent years, some police forces have begun to recognise the potentially devastating effect a criminal record can have on a person. In response, they have introduced schemes to keep people caught for minor drug offences out of the criminal justice system and instead encourage understanding of the potential harms that may occur if the offending continues. These are called ‘diversion schemes’.

Avon and Somerset Police were one of the first police forces in the country to introduce a diversion scheme for people aged 18 and over back in 2016. This is called the Drugs Education Programme, or DEP for short. People referred to the DEP will be invited to attend a three and a half hour group session that aims to educate attendees about the harms of drugs and also some of the legalities surrounding them. Those aged 10-17 will be referred to the Youth Alcohol and Drug Diversion Scheme (YADD) which is similar to the adult service but delivered on a one to one basis rather than as a group.

At the discretion of the arresting officer, the scheme can be offered to anyone caught in possession of drugs, no matter what drug they are caught with or the extent of their previous offending. Once someone completes the course, they will be sent a letter saying that no further action will be taken and the incident won’t show up on any criminal record checks. However, the DEP and YADD can only be attended once, so if someone successfully completes the course but is caught in possession of drugs again, they will not be able to repeat the course and criminal justice outcome (a caution or charge for possession) is likely.

Charlotte Pritchard, Senior Commissioning and Policy Officer at Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset has described the scheme as

 A new approach to policing in that it has changed [the] thinking to look at…root causes [of drug use] and gives an opportunity to change before criminalising [the individual].

These schemes were initially only available in Bristol but have been deemed so successful at reducing reoffending by Avon and Somerset Police that in 2019 they were rolled out across the whole policing area. A new scheme called ‘Call In’ has been introduced for those aged 17 and under who are suspected of dealing. These people are offered mentoring and skills development courses to help them get a job or continue in education and ultimately realise their potential outside the criminal world in addition to the usual drug awareness course.

People who use drugs in Bristol still need to be aware of the legal issues surrounding drugs, particularly as referral is at the discretion of the arresting officer, the schemes can only be attended once and those 18 and over suspected of dealing are unlikely to be referred. However, these schemes demonstrate a real willingness from Avon and Somerset Police to avoid criminalising people unnecessarily, address the underlying reasons why people choose to use drugs and to reduce drug related harm.

It’s important to know your rights if you’re stopped by the police and found in possession of drugs. Release have made this handy app that will guide you through the process and make sure you know your rights if you are asked to attend the police station.

If you’re concerned about your use of alcohol or other drugs, or the use of a friend or family member, give us a call on 01179896000 for free, confidential advice and support.

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To find out more about club drugs and how you can reduce the harm they cause, browse The Drop section of our website.

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