On (Police) Diversion: Against Carcerality and Prohibition on the Road to Abolition
We are witnessing an intensification of the power, capacity and reach of state violence in Britain through the development and enactment of highly punitive laws and policies that expand policing, surveillance, imprisonment, and bordering. The advancement of many of these laws and policies have been supported by prohibitionist pretexts, with the ‘war on drugs’** providing, in discursive and practical terms, cover for the entrenchment and enlargement of the multiple systems of violence and neglect deployed by the British state at home and abroad. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, for instance, includes measures to expand the use of coerced drug testing for people in contact with the criminal legal system. And the Online Safety Bill proposes further criminalising people involved in supply.
These proposals build onto an already destructive apparatus of violence. Last year in England and Wales, there were more than 700,000 stops and searches, of which almost 70% related to drug policing. 210,000 drug offences were recorded by police, the absolute majority linked to simple possession. Recent data suggests drug-related sentencing is at a five-year high. As the harrowing case of Child Q makes clear, Black people and other minoritised and vulnerabilised communities bear the brunt of this violence.
In responding to these harms, people have mobilised for decades to demand the decriminalisation of activities related to the use of drugs. These calls are often motivated by the recognition that the prohibition and criminalisation of these behaviours invite coercive state interventions into our communities and our bodies, reinforcing existing injustices as well as creating more.
** By ‘war on drugs’, I refer to policies, practices and discourses that rely on the characterisation of [some] drugs as a moral evil that needs to be stamped out through state-sanctioned prohibition, coercion, criminalisation and punishment.
Diversion schemes: A police-led response at a time of crises
Recent responses by the British government to these calls for change appear contradictory, promising increased health and welfare service provision whilst actively rejecting meaningful legal change and proposing further violence. This balancing act is mirrored by the police. Despite sustained increases in drug policing, a growing number of police forces and authorities around Britain are speaking in favour of a ‘public health approach’ to drugs and drug policing. Considering that confidence in the police has been severely eroded by a never-ending string of tragedies of their own making, it is hard not to see in these changing gestures an investment in self-preservation. Police forces around Britain have redoubled efforts to appear as a benign force, a ‘trusted partner’, even part of the ‘community’ — in the pursuit of maintaining consent.
Diversion schemes create an opportunity that can be leveraged in this direction, allowing police forces to give themselves a veneer of social benefit and public service, leaving the violent reality of drug policing and criminalisation intact.
Whilst highly diverse in terms of operation, they can be defined as: ‘police-led programmes that divert people caught committing minor offences away from the criminal justice system, to other measures instead’. The multiplication of diversion schemes across Britain is not particularly well documented, but at least 14 police forces run them. And their number is growing.
For those of us committed to building sustainable alternatives to the ‘war on drugs’, diversion schemes are, at face value, highly seductive. Amidst the constant onslaught of penal populism from ‘left’ and right, and the generalised disregard for life reflected in the necropolitics of the British government’s [drug-]policymaking, diversion schemes are a tempting mirage. They promise a ‘better’, less punitive facet of policing. The transformation of an institution of violence into promoters of health and well-being. I believe this is a false premise. One that entrenches the legitimacy of police involvement in the lives of vulnerabilised people, risks expanding police capacity and resources, and diverts attention and resources from tackling the root causes of pain and harm that can be associated with drugs.
In the following sections, I discuss why and suggest abolitionist reforms and practices that better serve drug users- and collective liberation.
Diversion schemes legitimise police intervention in our lives
Drug diversion schemes rely on police intervention and determinations of what constitutes a ‘low-level offence’ that can be processed through these schemes. Usually, these concern people who have been stopped or arrested for drug possession for personal use or who have tested positive for drugs. In certain cases, other offences deemed to be connected to drug use (‘trigger offences’), such as theft, can also be covered by these schemes. Following police intervention, including whilst in custody, people deemed to be suitable for the programme will be offered ‘voluntary’ (we will come back to this word later) access to education and treatment programmes, instead of prosecution and criminal sanctions.
There is no doubt that a number of people benefit from the reduced contact with the criminal legal system and streamlined access into support services that diversion schemes enable. But their reliance on police involvement and discretion, in a context of criminalisation, creates fertile ground for injustice. In deciding whether to divert someone, police officers consider [often absurd] contextual factors at their discretion (ex. whether the person is carrying scales), previous records (including of prior engagement in diversion schemes), and the likely ‘risk’ that the person poses to the public. These considerations are pervaded by racist, sexist, xenophobic and other harmful police understandings and ‘intelligence’ that essentialise risk in certain groups.
Those same considerations influence which communities are policed in the first place. Police exist to manage and reproduce inequality, and as such invariably and heavily target racialised and minoritised people. It is, thus, unsurprising, that at the same time as the Thames Valley Police was implementing its Drugs Diversion Pilot in West Berkshire throughout 2019, both the number and racist disproportionality of stop and search practices actually increased.
At a time when over 4,600 people in Britain are pushed into premature drug-related deaths, surely the priority should be guaranteeing unfettered access to a broad range of well-resourced systems of care and support for anyone who needs them, on their terms. Access to health and welfare services should not be dependent on the police as gatekeepers.
This leads to another crucial point, that of individual and bodily autonomy. Proponents of diversion schemes present them as voluntary. In reality, there are multiple forms of coercion at play throughout their deployment. To begin with, making free choices under the watch of the police or in custody is impossible —the dynamics of power that characterise interactions with the police are the opposite of the relationships that we should be mobilising to structure society around, based on equality and interdependence, rather than on violence and coercion. As the recent harrowing death of Oladeji Omishore reminds us, police intervention supposes an increased likelihood of people who are policed coming into harm’s way.
Moreover, in order to benefit from diversion schemes, people caught in possession of drugs have to ‘accept their responsibility for the offence’. This is a hard pill to swallow for people who use drugs —What exactly are we supposed to be penitent or accountable for? Our desire to alter our consciousness, like humans have for millennia? Our reliance on chemicals to seek euphoria and pleasure, or address pain and trauma? Our unwillingness to rely solely on other, socially - and legally - acceptable, drugs for these very same purposes? Our comparatively higher likelihood of living in situations of fabricated vulnerability? Given that the alternative offered to people is to expose themselves to the full might of the punitive justice system, it is entirely understandable why many people perform repentance before public authorities in the hopes of avoiding a stigmatising criminal record, further prosecution, or future interactions with the criminal legal system. Diversion schemes, we must remember, can introduce ‘voluntary’ conditions, such as attendance to drug education courses and treatment programmes. While I cannot comment in detail on these, as they are delivered by a broad range of subcontractors, the fact that they are framed as means to avoid ‘re-offending’ and delivered as part of a coercive (and soon to be monetised?) relationship renders them even more problematic.
The failure to adhere to these conditions, which in some schemes are shaped by police officers themselves, does not lead to immediate criminalisation and prosecution. However, depending on the scheme, non-adherence can either reduce or simply render impossible the possibility of having a second chance to be diverted. In the crude language of drug policing, diversion schemes offer ‘both a “carrot” and a “stick”’. Three strikes (or possibly two) and you’re out…
Diversion schemes maintain and reinforce police capacity
Drug diversion schemes are often premised in relation to their impact on police capacity. For many, including proponents within the police, they are a means to ‘free up’ resources in ways that allow it to redirect state violence away from ‘the [comparatively] innocent’ (or ‘the sick’) and toward ‘real criminals’. This understanding of the police as avenger-style justice superheroes underpins carcerality. It relies on the ‘fabricated story of an imagined monstrous “other” from whom we have to be protected at any cost’. And this ‘other’ is always constructed along racist, capitalist, patriarchal, and otherwise oppressive lines that essentialise risk and criminality.
Diversion schemes transform and expand structures and processes that, while appearing innocuously bureaucratic, are an integral part of the state’s repressive apparatus: new police-led institutional arrangements, ‘new bureaucratic structures, new frontline and administrative positions, new staff training and new protocols…’. The proliferation of this punishment bureaucracy is not ‘neutral’; on the contrary, it entrenches policing. Across the country, for instance, ‘Violence Reduction Units’ (VRUs) are multiplying. VRU’s are part of a state-led effort to present police as legitimate and effective. To ensure ‘robust police enforcement’ whilst ‘adopting a wider public-health approach [to] also address some of the longer-term underlying issues and prevent violence in the first place’. Carrots and sticks.
VRU’s play an important role in the delivery of diversion schemes and have received praise both from the central government and local authorities. Police authorities have advocated for supplementary funds to service these new bureaucracies and schemes. In fact, the ‘successes’ of diversion schemes have been used to leverage increases in police funding. As part of a wider 5-year trend of increasing police expenditure, the British government has allocated progressively more funds for the set-up and running of VRUs. In February 2021, the government recorded a total budget of £105.5 million for these units. In April 2022, a supplementary expenditure of £64 million was announced.
This increased funding for policing takes place against the backdrop of youth services being decimated, sharp increases in deaths among unhoused people —partly related to the termination of emergency accommodation arrangements, cuts to universal credit, and a long list of government cuts that will translate into sharply deteriorating living conditions for hundreds of thousands of people in Britain; the very precarious conditions that fuel and compound drug-related problems.
Diversion distracts from building sustainable alternatives to criminalisation and punishment
What we need is full decriminalisation on the road to abolition. And a clear step in that direction, amidst many others, is the decriminalisation of activities related to drug use, coupled with the redirection of funds away from drug policing and toward non-coercive systems of care and support. Networks of people who use drugs, advocates and activists have produced useful resources and concrete blueprints in this direction. A number of states have adopted legal frameworks of [flawed] decriminalisation that provide important learning points to build upon. Support for decriminalisation comes from research and normative guidance from health bodies and UN agencies. It is absolutely clear that the decriminalisation of people who use drugs is an essential baseline upon which to build fair[er] responses to the challenges we face in relation to drugs. Crucially, there is nothing specifically beneficial about diversion schemes that cannot be achieved in a decriminalised framework.
Now, while support to end all forms of punishment for the possession of all drugs remains minoritarian in Britain, most people have come to acknowledge criminalisation is ‘futile’. I want to believe that this generalised sense of weariness in relation to Britain’s harmful drug laws offers opportunities to further political education and to build power and solidarity towards change. Lessons from across the world also point to opportunities in the shape of strategic litigation, bold practices of care and support, protest and sustained mobilisation, coalition-building, and many more to create the conditions for and precipitate legal change.
That said, we need way more than promoting change in drug laws, for ‘lobbying the carceral state has its uses, but it cannot be the only resource in our toolkit’. Which is why moves to end criminalisation must be embedded in a broader effort to develop our communities’ capacity to resist state violence, and create opportunities for healing and transformation. To build up a new world in the cracks of this one. In many ways, this has already started. Every peer sharing naloxone, bystander intervening in a police stop, community safe-supply initiative, harm reduction zine with valuable injecting/snorting/boofing advice, show what is possible when we prioritise caring for each other; when we do not privatise and outsource reducing harm and responding to crises and conflict to the repressive forces of the state.
We can take cues from mutual aid initiatives like Peter Krykant’s volunteer-ran unsanctioned overdose prevention site in Glasgow, or Metzineres —a Catalonian harm reduction cooperative by women and non-binary people. As well as from legal support and literacy initiatives like the Harm Reduction Free School in Brazil, the Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme in Kenya, IDUCARE in the Philippines. And the many cop-watch and anti-raid groups springing all over Britain.
Everything needs changing. The place to start is everywhere.
Resisting a British state committed to authoritarianism, carceral expansion and reinventing prohibition will require redoubled and sustained collective efforts in ‘creative destruction’; a double gesture of attrition and re-construction. In defining a strategy in this direction, abolition offers a prism and a compass. To understand and subvert oppression, and to define practical strategies that can truly bring forth a world where the violence of prisons, policing and punishment are made obsolete.
Drug policing, like policing more generally, is a death-making apparatus. An abolitionist strategy seeks its dismantlement, which is incompatible with maintaining or expanding its reach, power or legitimacy. A caring and careful approach to reform —of the non-reformist, abolitionist kind— must be part of this strategy. Diversion schemes are antithetical to this, for they invariably legitimate police intervention (and thus, police violence) in our lives, expand police capacity, and distract from the root causes of drug-related harm, including state violence and neglect. The decriminalisation of activities related to drug use, on the road to full decriminalisation, offers an immediate step in the right direction. Yet meaningful change calls for a mass movement not only for drug law reform, but to multiply practices of solidarity and support, in a world without punishment.