England & Wales: Breaking Down 2014 Drug Policing Data

Past-year data in England and Wales shows a drop off in drug policing. But, with figures still well above where they were a decade ago, and an abundance of evidence showing that policing possession has little impact on use rates, why is the government still funneling resources into this futile practice? 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its annual Crime in England and Wales report last week detailing trends in recorded crime over the period January-December 2014. The statistics are based on police-recorded crime and the Crime Survey for England and Wales, a household survey that records people’s experiences of crime, going beyond police-recorded crime.

The report divides crimes into specific offence types, with drug offences falling within the "other crimes against society" category. (Interestingly, "other crimes against society" are defined as those that do not have a "specific identifiable victim," ironic considering the number of people found guilty of drug offences, even simple possession offences, face a "victim surcharge" as a part of their sentence, but I digress).

"Other crimes against society" account for 11 percent of all police-recorded crime, or 401,293 offences in the last calendar year. Of that number 178,719 (44 percent) were drug offences.

We are continuously told that crime is falling and, in terms of the data, the same is true for drug offences with an 11 percent reduction compared to the previous year, and a fall of 27 percent since 2008/09. These reductions are mainly as a result of a significant fall in possession offences.

However, nobody could argue that this fall in drug offences is due to a decrease in people using or supplying drugs -- last year’s Crime Survey for England and Wales reported small increases in prevalence rates across a number of drugs. It is more likely that this drop is directly related to reductions in the use of stop and search, as the ONS report states:

"Trends in such offences tend to reflect changes in police workload and activity rather than in levels of criminality” (pg. 83).

This is far from saying that the drop off in policing is directly leading to an uptick in use, though. For one, the sharp drop in recorded drug offenses since 2008/9 has not seen a corresponding and similarly sharp increase in use levels. The relationship between drug law toughness and use levels is problematic to say the least, but we'll come back to that.

What is fascinating is that despite the recent percentage fall in such drug offences, there has been a 27 percent increase in drug possession offences since 2003/04 (trafficking offences have increased by 14 percent in the same period).

The main driver for this increase in the last 11 years is the policing of cannabis. The ONS report states that 66 percent of all drug offences involved cannabis (pg. 85), a trend that we have seen as part of our research into the ethnic disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales.

The introductions of cannabis warnings and penalty notices for disorder (PNDs) to deal with first and second-time cannabis possession offences has seen an explosion in the number of people coming into formal contact with the criminal justice system. However, whilst the cannabis warning scheme was meant to divert people away from the police station, ensuring they did not end up with a criminal record, what we have witnessed, besides the increased numbers coming into formal contact, is more people being taken to court for the offence than ever before.

The most recent figures from the Ministry of Justice reveal that nearly 28,000 people were prosecuted for possession of a Class B drug in 2013, an increase of nearly 4,000 prosecuted for the offence since 2002/03. This is despite the fact a diversionary scheme was brought to effect and cannabis use fell during the period from a high of 10.7 percent of all adults reporting last year use of the drug to 6.6 percent in the last reported year.

What makes all of this worse is that the Home Office's Drugs: International Comparators report, released in October 2014, clearly stated that tough enforcement had little relationship with prevalence rates. Release’s own report into decriminalisation of drug possession offences clearly showed that countries or states that had stopped using criminal sanctions to deal with drug use did not experience increases in prevalence rates.

This week the Telegraph reported that civil servants were investigating ways for the next government to save money; decriminalising possession of drugs was mooted. Considering the level of policing around this area -- even with figures falling -- and the damage it does in terms of needlessly criminalising tens of thousands of  people every year, it would certainly be a good start!