We spoke with Alex Stevens on his view on current drug policy and moving away from over intensive and stigmatising interventions.
What are some of the key principles for quality drug diversion?
We need to recognise the evidence that shows for many, especially young people, a police intervention can be worse than doing nothing for them. There is an abundance of evidence from criminology, including the Edinburgh Study on Youth Transitions and Crime, which shows that, for example, 14 year olds who commit offences, who are get into adverse contact with the police, have a higher rate of reoffending than those who commit similar offences who have no contact with the police or courts. No intervention has to be an option. We have to consider that providing supportive interventions through Youth Services is likely to be more effective than the police intervening in a young person's life. The aim of diversion should therefore be to minimise the intervention of the police and courts and to maximise the support that young person and their families can get.
The equivalent of that for young people involved in drugs is involving a drug worker who has got skills in engaging young people on the issues around their drug use, which are normally far more complicated than just the drug use itself. Police officers have too much on their plate to be fully trained in these skills. This is why we need the intervention to come from drug workers and, further, to recognise that not all people who are in possession of small amounts of drugs are in need of intervention. If we consider that intervention by police in young people's lives is often more harmful than good, then we need to think about the policies that create interventions, and how we change them.
Police policies often create interventions in young people's lives, especially for young black boys and girls affected directly by stop and search, either directly or through the experience of their male relatives and friends.
The government recently announced within the UK Drug Summit that there should be a punitive response to drug possession. Why are we still witnessing this difference in ideology?
The book I am working on now addresses that exact conundrum. Why do - what I call zombie policies - still walk the earth? Policies which have repeatedly been proved not to work, why do they rear their head again and again?
The involvement of the police in a young person's life is a symptom of system failure. We should not be focusing on what the police should do about young people because by that stage it is too late. All the other systems that should be preventing the engagement of young people with the police have failed. The police are too often used as a last resort to cover the failure to provide services which would be more effective in preventing harm to children. So what we need to be doing is thinking about the system the other way around. How do we stop people from even getting anywhere near the police?
Many police forces are implementing a two-tier system as gateway to education assessment awareness, what would you design that gateway as?
Minimal intervention, thoughtful intervention when necessary, divergent to people who have got the right skills, and no punishment for non-compliance. It is hard for any professional to accept that their intervention can be more harmful than good. We know there are thousands of brilliant people in the system who want to make it work. They know what the system problems are and they develop everyday ways of getting around the problems. The question is - how do we create structures that enable the people who want to do the right thing, who have got enough self-reflection in their practice to be aware when they are doing the wrong thing and need the resources to create a system that works for the people they are working with?
What is an important factor in providing interventions?
I find it problematic that we use the stigmatisation of people who use drugs as a means of getting them the help that they need, rather than the fact that they are human beings who may be struggling in their lives. It is important to get the balance right. Some of my work has shown how for people who have a drug problem, it is so important that they build therapeutic alliance with somebody. They need at least one person in the system with whom they can develop a trusting relationship, somebody who they believe, believes in them, who wants to see them do well, who believes they can do well and supports them along the way. We need to create systems that support the building of these therapeutic relationships, and avoid disrupting them by criminalising people.
What are your thoughts on the consequences for recreational drug use, how do we reduce the criminalisation?
The government is having yet another go at reducing drug use by threatening people who use drugs with punishment. Criminologists have known for centuries that if deterrence is to work, it has to be swift, certain but not necessarily severe. Sadly, we have a criminal justice system that is rarely swift and is uncertain, but is very capable of being severe. Knowing this, we should be looking for more effective ways of reducing the harms of drug use, of illicit drug markets, and of the criminalisation of people who use drugs. One way of doing that is to divert more people away from arrest and charge for low level drug offences. Another would be to decriminalise the simple possession of drugs.