Drug Users Could be Made to Wear a “Drug Tag” to Curb Use

In a bid to tackle ‘the root of untold harm and misery across our society’, the government has proposed a reshuffle of its current drug strategy. Recreational users of illegal party drugs, such as cocaine or cannabis, will be given a “three strikes” style punishment that could involve wearing a tag to monitor their blood for drug use.

This poses many questions about effective support and treatment for those living with a substance abuse disorder. As, despite the promise of money for rebuilding treatment and recovery services, the introduction of the “drug tag” deems problematic, without the appropriate support and treatment, individuals are at risk of experiencing a decline in their mental health and are at further risk of experiencing a relapse later down the line.

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New Consequences for Drug Possession 

In a white paper titled Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession, the government has proposed new plans for punishment for recreational drug users. First-time offenders who are caught with illegal drugs would need to pay to attend a mandatory drug awareness course. If they do not pay or attend the course, they will receive an increased fixed penalty notice, and even face the risk of prosecution.

If an individual is caught with drugs for a second time, they will be cautioned and will have to attend a second drug awareness course as well as being subject to random drug testing for up to three months. Lastly, if an individual is found with drugs for the third time, they are likely to be charged and upon conviction, they will be subject to the exclusion of banning them from entertainment venues and nightclubs, with chances of having their driving licences and passports confiscated. Tier 3 also sees the possibility of individuals wearing a “drug tag” where their sweat and blood is monitored to test for drug use.

The device is modelled after the success of the sobriety tag; preliminary research had found that previous offenders, who had abused alcohol, had restrained themselves from the substance for 95% of the time after the tag was installed. The device was fitted on offenders who had committed alcohol-driven crimes, and the tag would then take a sample of their sweat every 30 minutes. Now, more than 100 people are wearing the tag and probation officers have praised its success.

Whilst the government has claimed they are tackling “the root causes of crime” by restraining individuals from drinking alcohol, the tag does not address the root causes of the alcohol abuse. It puts to question the effectiveness of treatment for those with a substance abuse disorder.

Following on from the government’s 10-year drug strategy, “From harm to hope”, which set out to “cut drug-related crime and save lives”, Priti Patel has highlighted the aim of reducing the demand for drugs. This, she says, will reverse the rising trend in drug use. The 10-year-plan was coined to tackle recreational drug use, which many politicians and members of law enforcement have linked to being a part of someone’s lifestyle, particularly those who are deemed ‘middle class’.

By targeting recreational drug use, the government believes they are directly targeting the “dangerous drug gangs” and “duelling violence”. Home Office Secretary Priti Patel has said: ‘We are cracking down on drug use with tougher consequences for so-called recreational drug users who will face the consequences of their actions through sanctions, including fines and conditions to attend rehabilitation courses, while drug offenders could have their passports and driving licences confiscated.’

The War On Drugs

While diversion schemes are relevant and effective in not criminalising everyone caught in the possession of drugs, the idea that people need to pay for rehabilitation courses is discriminative against communities who do not have the means to pay. The British Government attempts to divert drug users from the criminal justice system while increasing punishments for recreational drug users. The contradictory proposals reflect the government’s understanding that the current system in place for drug use is ineffective. However, they seem to be focusing on the wrong alternatives.

This focus on punitive politics, revolving around drug use, is something we have seen before. While many countries, such as Switzerland and Portugal, have steered away from the failed “war on drugs” strategy, which is aimed at criminalising drug users, the UK government has adopted these policies as their own, making slight changes that are arguably performative.

The “war on drugs” is a term that was first coined in America in the 70s; it denotes a controversial global campaign led by the US federal government in what they called a ‘crack down’ on illicit drug use, distribution, and trade. However, the laws and legislations that were implemented to prohibit drugs and criminalise drug users highlighted the campaign’s ulterior attack on the poorest and most vulnerable communities, as well as racial minorities. Research shows that these policies directly contributed to high rates of imprisonment within these groups. As well as the evidence, key politicians at the time were reported stating that the campaign had two direct enemies: “the anti-war left and black people”.

Are Fixed Fines and Drug Tags Effective in Tackling Recreational Drug Use?

The injustice of drug laws is also prevalent in the UK. With drug users being asked to pay for drug awareness courses as well as fixed penalty fines, those with money will be able to work their way around the three-strike system. Those without the possibility to pay are at risk of facing the alternative punishment of imprisonment. This is something the government has stated they are trying to avoid.

The white paper also outlines the government’s plans to make payments for rehabilitation courses ‘above cost’. This would mean that individuals attending would have to pay more than the overall costs of the running of the programme; thus, the government would be profiting and benefiting from this new three-tier system. Where the government has exclaimed that its focus is on “middle-class recreational drug users”, the policies do not seem to fit this narrative and vulnerable communities with less financial stability will be heavily hit.

Are drug tags and monitoring individuals’ drug use the way forward? Are fines for drug use effective? Governments should instead ensure that the drug trade is safe for everyone, from producers to consumers. We need to work towards policy reformations to ensure that drug laws do not further discriminate against vulnerable communities and instead tackle the issues at hand.

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