This morning Nick Clegg announced that the Liberal Democrats want to ban judges from sending those convicted of possessing illegal drugs to prison. This policy may make sense around the dinner tables of the liberal elite, but it would be a betrayal of Britain’s poorest communities who would suffer as a result.
It would, for instance, render neighbourhoods less safe by giving a green light to drug dealers. Nick Clegg assumes it’s easy to tell dealers and users apart, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is no set quantity of drugs that automatically leads to someone being charged with ‘intent to supply’. Unless the suspect admits guilt or there is overwhelming supplementary evidence – such as scales, deal bags, or cutting agents – then even hardened dealers are charged only with possession. One former dealer put it bluntly:
'I only ever got done on possession charges – to get convicted of intent to supply you either need to be high or stupid.'
Furthermore, we know former dealers who argue this would dramatically increase drug supply. This is because it makes it easier for dealers to recruit and spread drugs amongst new foot soldiers as they can promise that, carelessness aside, getting caught can never result in prison.
Prison is a necessary tool for judges to use in the most extreme cases. In the case of drug possession it is, rightly, rarely used – only in four per cent of cases are people sent to prison and they spend, on average, just two weeks inside. Prison tends to be reserved for those for whom every other sentencing option has been tried and has failed. We should not be sending first-time drug offenders to prison, but neither should we be banning judges from using it as a last resort.
Rather than this misguided idea we should be working relentlessly to prevent drug abuse and to get people clean. In particular, community-based treatment is in dire need of reform. We send 13,000 offenders on drug rehabilitation courses each year. Yet this expensive and wasteful system cares more about whether offenders are on time for meetings than whether they are getting off drugs. It needs to be focused on abstinence.
There is nothing socially just or liberal about leaving people more vulnerable to the damage of drug addiction. This idea from the Liberal Democrats, however well-motivated, is naive. It would increase dealing, drug use and addiction. The dealers preying on people in our communities will be delighted today.
Edward Boyd is Deputy Policy Director at the Centre for Social Justice