‘Policing Drugs in a Rapidly Changing Environment: Challenges, Innovation and Reform’


Jason McGoldrick


Time to read

4 Minutes

On 21st May 2019, Dr Matthew Bacon, a lecturer in Criminology from the University of Sheffield, came to the Centre for Criminology to present his paper ‘Policing Drugs in a Rapidly Changing Environment: Challenges, Innovation and Reform’, as part of the MSc Communication Skills seminar series. Dr Bacon’s research expertise are in the areas of policing and drug policy, with his most recent endeavours exploring developments in police-academic partnerships and collaborations in knowledge exchange. His talk was based on his current research on evaluating how new drug policy measures that are being implemented in certain parts of the UK, which are more focused on harm reduction and police diversion, may be effective and signal a shift in police culture and attitudes towards the policing of drugs. He presented preliminary findings, as his research is ongoing.  

A global trend in recent years has been the recognition that the traditional stance on the War on Drugs is slowly losing both its appeal and influence. Numerous countries are beginning to implement drug policies that have health and education as their primary concern, influenced by a new surge in evidence-based approaches. In the UK, on the other hand, where drug use is relatively high, there remains a strong preference for prohibition. Further, drug related deaths here are at an all-time high, with the 2018 West Midlands Policy Recommendations Report from the Police and Crime Commissioner noting that one person dies every four hours in the UK due to drug poisoning, while existing services that assist drug users are suffering from government austerity measures.

Accordingly, Dr Bacon explained that certain police forces are using their discretionary authority to trial new approaches that shift away from traditional law enforcement towards harm reduction. This is epitomised by Durham’s Chief Constable, Mike Barton, who has advocated for progressive policies to be implemented to tackle the drug problem in the UK. He has put forward arguments against prohibition and for ‘consumption rooms’ to be introduced, which would provide heroin addicts with clean needles and sanitary conditions to take their drugs.

The Avon & Somerset Constabulary have introduced awareness and education programmes for those who are caught with drugs, in place of prosecution. The Bristol police bring in those who have been caught and explain to them the side-effects of drugs misuse, including criminality, and participants in the programme do not receive a criminal conviction. The programme is considered by officers to have been a success. These new approaches are initiated at the local level, not driven by a nationwide directive from the government. Dr Bacon therefore posited an interesting question: are these changes to a shift in police culture and attitudes towards the criminalisation of drug use? His research aims to examine the impetus for these reforms, and the rationale behind their development and implementation, and to evaluate the efficacy of these new approaches so that a nationwide response to drug use could be developed.

Dr Bacon’s method in conducting his research was to carry out interviews with members of the police force while also interviewing the other key actors behind the development and implementation of innovative approaches to the policing of drugs. He wanted to know how police currently viewed the world they work in and their place in it.

One of his main findings was how personal experiences significantly shaped police officers’ outlook. Interviews with different members of the force revealed how being called out to certain situations, such as being present for the death of a drug user who they had come to know, could lead officers to question their outlook. For other police members, dealing with drug offenders hit closer to home, as those who had children began to have a more sympathetic outlook on people who suffered from drug addiction. Certain officers began to question the government’s role in implementing prohibition measures, and the role they themselves played in enforcing these policies. Some of the officers who had experienced these events, and had contemplated their own role in policing drug misuse changed their minds and started believing that the police’s function ought to change. They further came to the realisation that drugs will always be part of society one way or another, and not likely fully eliminated.

While Dr Bacon’s findings were encouraging to hear, he did note that, while police cultural attitudes to the ‘drug problem’ appear to be changing at the lower level, change was not so apparent among more senior officers. Some police officers noted that if they articulated a view that drugs were not a criminal matter, but rather a medical one, or that drug misuse should be tackled through education and diversion, they would be termed ‘fluffy’; a derogatory remark against police officers deemed insufficiently robust or punitive. Police officers reluctant to view the drug problem in an alternative or sympathetic light were encapsulated by the phrase ‘the old ways die hard’. This illustrates that while some officers are adopting a new outlook in tackling drugs, this is not yet endemic within policing.

Despite this, Dr Bacon observed that the police have, in general, a pragmatic outlook. If they see evidence of alternative approaches working, there is a good possibility that they will change their minds about how to conduct their work. As an example, his interviews highlighted that police often note the costs of implementing the ‘tough on drugs’ measures that are currently yielding unsatisfactory results. Therefore, once they were presented with findings that showed how some diversion programmes were working effectively and more efficiently than the current policies in practice (an example being the one in operation in Avon & Somerset), officers were willing to change their mind on the matter. Thus, while the current drug landscape in the UK is disconcerting, Dr Bacon notes that there are reasons to be optimistic about possible changes in the future, both with regard to reforms to the current legal framework on prohibition, but also in respect of the current police drug policy.

This leads into what Dr Bacon is hoping to produce from his research: to provide a national overview of drugs policing in order to identify where new approaches have been adopted and succeeded in practice. The police can be receptive to change in how they respond to drug offending if their personal experiences shape their thinking on drugs, or if they are presented with research on effective alternative diversion schemes. Clearly, personal stories and evidence-based alternatives can assist in changing perceptions about drugs and, more importantly, assist those who suffer from drug use.

In ending his presentation, Dr Bacon noted that it is imperative that whatever new drug policy is implemented, it needs to be harmonised throughout the UK. Currently there is much inconsistency in police approaches throughout the country, and those caught with drugs for recreational use could be dealt with in a different manner depending on where they are located. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, David Jamieson, produced a report in February 2018 titled ‘Reducing Harm and Preventing Crime: West Midlands Drug Policy Recommendations’ outlining eight recommendations which could be implemented and improve the current situation for engaging with those who misuse drugs.