LONDON – Possession of any drug for personal use should be decriminalized, the UK government's official drug advisers have recommended.
Tens of thousands of people caught with drugs ranging from heroin to cannabis would go on drug education courses rather than being punished in the courts under the proposals, The London Times reported Friday.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said the change would save police, courts, probation and prison services the costs of dealing with drug offenders. It would also allow more drug users to be assessed for treatment rather than being given criminal records.
The council's call to decriminalize the personal use of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine puts it on a collision course with the government, which is opposed to any weakening of existing drug laws. Professor Les Iversen, chairman of the council, believes there is now an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who are caught in possession of drugs.
"For people found to be in possession of (any) drug for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offenses), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses," the council said.
The council also suggests drug users could have their driving licenses and passports confiscated as part of a civil rather than criminal penalty.
"Such approaches may be more effective in reducing repeat offending," it said. The council is clear that anyone caught with drugs for personal possession who is also involved or linked to other crime would be dealt with through the court system.
About 35,000 people were sentenced for drug possession in 2009. A further 11,490 were given an on-the-spot fine and 43,000 were cautioned for drug offenses.
Roger Howard, chief executive of independent body the UK Drug Policy Commission, said the call for decriminalization recognized that prosecutions for what might be described as low-level offenses is not worth the time of the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts.
"I think the Advisory Council is catching up and recognizing, de facto, what is already beginning to happen," he said. "They are calling for decriminalization of possession of drugs for personal use. Other countries have done this, most notably Portugal, and the roof has not fallen in."
Portugal became the first European country in July 2001 to introduce "administrative" penalties -- similar to parking fines -- for the possession of all illicit drugs.