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Watch out, people who use drugs: Priti Patel wants to steal your passport

The government has launched a ‘legally dubious’ new plan to penalise people who use recreational drugs.

People who use recreational drugs could have their passports and driving licenses confiscated, according to a new plan published by the Home Office. Titled Swift, Certain, Tough. New Consequences for Drug Possession, the proposal outlines a three-step process to penalise people who use drugs. 

A foreword by Priti Patel, affecting the stern register of a retired Army Colonel writing a letter to the Daily Mail, huffs that “so-called recreational drug users will face a fine and could have their passports and driving licenses seized.” The gruff scepticism implied by “so-called” here is confusing: what else would they be called?

Naturally, most of the coverage around the announcement has focused on the most extreme aspect: the seizing of passports and driving licenses. But this is the final step of a three-stage process, and will be unlikely to affect the average person who indulges in a bit of gear from time to time.

The three-step plan is intended to apply only to people who don’t have an addiction problem, but how that will be determined, or by whom, remains unclear. The first stage will see offenders forced to attend and pay for a “drugs awareness course”. If they don’t, they will have to pay a higher fine or face prosecution. The question of whether it’s effective to legally coerce people into drug treatment is controversial, but more to the point: if someone really is just using drugs recreationally then they probably don’t require such an intervention, which will likely do more harm than good.

If people are caught a second time, they are “offered a caution which would include... a period of mandatory drug testing alongside attendance at a further stage drugs awareness course.” It’s only at the final stage that people will face passport confiscation and driver’s license qualification – a measure described by drug policy charity Release as “legally dubious.” At this stage, offenders also face prosecution, alongside exclusion orders which would see them banned from a specific location, such as a nightclub.

There is no evidence that harsher penalties lead to a reduction in rates of drug use. Beyond the question of whether prohibition is ethical, it just doesn’t work. And there’s another problem with the government’s latest proposal: if you are only using recreationally, you would have to be implausibly unlucky to be caught by the police on three separate occasions. Michael Gove MP, who has admitted to using cocaine on several occasions, has never been arrested, nor have any of the politicians and lobby journalists regularly doing lines in the Houses of Parliament. If you’re white and middle class, recreational drug use is de facto legal. 

Instead of following the overwhelming evidence in favour of harm reduction, the government has continued to pursue punitive policies which are making the problem worse, alongside cutting the addiction services which actually help people

So who, realistically, would be impacted by these proposals? Well, people with serious addiction problems would be more likely to draw the police’s attention, particularly if they don’t have access to a private space (such as a home) in which to use drugs. And the racial disparities in who the police stop-and-search are staggering: according to one 2018 study, Black people are nine times more likely to be searched by the police for drugs than white people, despite using drugs at a significantly lower rate. The detection rate for stop-and-search is similar across all racial groups, but Black people are more likely to be arrested. Often, this goes hand in hand with police brutality: a recent report by Independent Office for Police Conduct found that a 15-year-old boy was stopped by the police for smelling of cannabis, before being kicked and punched by an officer. The government’s drug policy is not the sole cause for these acts of state violence, but it does facilitate them.

Recreational drug use isn’t inherently harmful, but addiction has become a worse problem in the UK within the last decade, during which period drug-related deaths have increased year on year. But whose fault is that? The Tories have been in power the whole time. Instead of following the overwhelming evidence in favour of harm reduction, the government has continued to pursue punitive policies which are making the problem worse, alongside cutting the addiction services which actually help people.

Beyond the failures of their drug policies, the Tories are responsible for creating a society so precarious and immiserated that more and more people are struggling with addiction: the areas in Britain which faced the harshest government cuts, for example, also saw the greatest increases in opioid-related deaths. This is no coincidence. Unemployment, poverty and financial precarity – all of which have soared under the Conservatives – are major driving forces of addiction. It’s not in the government's interests to address any of these underlying problems, so instead we have to settle for a cruel, posturing approach which will impact the most vulnerable communities in society and further perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. High-ranking Tories will continue to get a bag in undeterred.