Of the 10 police interviewees two identified as women and eight as men, which is broadly in line with the demographic profile of Police Scotland staff [61]. Participants were based on Aberdeen (n = 5), Dundee (n = 2), and Glasgow (n = 3), had a range of ranks including Constable, Sergeant, and Inspector, and described varying years of service ranging from a few to over 30 years.

The findings are presented in three themes: general perceptions of DCS; shifting culture towards public health-oriented policing; and issues and challenges surrounding the policing of DCS. Within these, a number of sub-themes were identified (Table 1).

Table 1 Themes and sub-themes

General perceptions of DCS

The majority of participants (n = 8) expressed general support for the implementation and operation of DCS in Scotland, while highlighting concerns around the policing of such services. Several participants noted that people were always going to use drugs, regardless of enforcement, and that, therefore, there was a need to provide people with information to minimise risk: ‘I think we need to accept the reality that people will take drugs and its just educating them as to what they are putting in their system’ (Police#1). The concepts of safety and preservation of life recurred in discussions, with participants using these to square their role enforcing drug laws with support for drug checking. As expressed by one participant, interventions such as drug checking were increasingly seen as defensible by senior management within the police, as use of such services would indicate that an individual wants ‘to keep themselves safe’ (Police#3).

Participants discussed the volatility of the drug market, making the provision of information to PWUD increasingly important for protecting life. The variation in strength and content of ‘street benzos’ (novel benzodiazepines) was seen as particularly concerning. Owing to these factors, and the resultant high level of drug related deaths in Scotland, participants often described a sense of moral imperative to explore alternative means of addressing the situation. As expressed by one participant, not implementing harm reduction interventions to address the level of drug related deaths, in their view, amounted to ‘allowing people to die where we could have intervened’ (Police#6).

Although most participants were supportive of drug checking, some expressed significant reservations. One participant discussed having very limited personal knowledge of drug checking in relation to how and where it would operate. However, they described the concept as intuitively ‘odd’ (Police#8). Whilst noting that in an ideal world they would ‘like all drugs taken off the street’, they acknowledged that a drug free society was not possible and displayed understanding of the underpinning logic of DCS: ‘to reduce the harm of someone taking something which is going to cause serious harm or death’ (Police#8). However, they described having significant reservations around the operation of DCS, and the role of the police within it:

Are we saying the police are openly welcoming people to come into a building when drugs are in their possession to have it checked? At which point they are committing a crime immediately. (Police#8)

In relation to support amongst the organisation more generally, participants described a perceived willingness amongst high-ranking police officials to work collaboratively with harm reduction services such as drug checking. Participants also generally believed that support for DCS would be fairly widespread amongst colleagues in their respective local divisions. For example, one participant highlighted that their local division would welcome the implementation of drug checking as an ‘extra tool to try and keep people alive and safer’ (Police#5). Another expressed the view that there was likely to be varying reactions to drug checking across departments, due to differing remits and cultures. They elaborated that their department would potentially be very receptive to the implementation of drug checking:

We’ve got the harm reduction assertive outreach part, that would sit nicely. We have just announced that we are having a harm reduction sergeant, that will be their specific role. So, by all means, I think it would sit very well here and would be welcomed. (Police#6)

However, not all shared the view that drug checking would be similarly supported. While noting a willingness from higher level police actors to support such interventions, one participant stated that drug checking would struggle to receive buy-in from local police teams, describing this as a ‘hard sell’ (Police#8).

Despite most participants noting that there would likely be reasonable support for DCS within the police at both national and local levels, many also felt that the police should not offer a strong opinion in support for such controversial services. Indeed, participants tended to stress their perception of the police as politically neutral, drawing their legitimacy from public confidence and through the process of ‘policing by consent’ (Police#8). Expressing vocal support for such an intervention could, in their view, harm public confidence in policing:

I think it’s a dangerous thing for the police to offer an opinion because you know the police are…the grey man sitting in the corner. If the police offer and opinion and say ‘use this service’, then there could be a public perception that the police are encouraging people to take drugs. So, the police would really need to stay out of the politics, really need to stay in the background and leave it up to a public discussion. (Police#1)

Participants tended to suggest that police could tacitly support DCS through not interrupting their operation, thus enabling engagement. However, as will be explored in more detail below, they also noted the need for high level actors to provide them with ‘cover’ in doing so, so that local officers were able to justify their practices to the public by pointing to guidance from relevant stakeholders. Examples of such potential cover included legislative change, directives from the highest-ranking police officials, or national guidance from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Scotland’s prosecution service.

Shifting culture towards public health-oriented policing

Many participants described support for DCS, both at an individual and a perceived organisational level, as part of a broader shift in policing culture away from support for enforcement-focused practices towards an openness to adopt a more public health-based approach. For example, one participant provided an account of this shift during their approximately 30 years of experience in policing:

When I joined, it was purely enforcement. There was very little, if any, thought given to a public health approach to this problem, and very little given to the welfare of those involved. It was purely enforcement and that has changed almost 180 degrees in the time that I’ve been in the police. (Police#4)

Participants described both indicators of, and factors perceived to be shaping, this shift in culture, which are described below as sub-themes. Whilst such discussion related to the intersections and potential tensions between public health and policing of drug laws more broadly, rather than to challenges around DCS specifically, it is worth outlining participants’ perceptions of such issues. Such discussion was a major feature of the data and served as a crucial contextual backdrop for how participants were able to square their support for the implementation of DCS with their role enforcing drug laws. Such issues speak to the complex process by which the ‘law on the books’ (i.e., criminalisation of drug possession) is mediated through a range of complex organisational, interpersonal and cultural factors [27, 38, 47].

The perceived failure of enforcement-based practices

Several participants described enforcement-led approaches as ineffective and unsustainable. As noted by one participant ‘an enforcement-led approach doesn’t work for folk that are simply using drugs’ (Police#3). Many participants described a belief that a public health approach to drug possession had proven to be successful in other countries and should be adopted in a Scottish context. Some described how viewing drug use through a ‘health lens’ had the potential to increase the security and wellbeing of communities by reducing levels of drug related death and harm, and related social costs:

Using a health lens, it’s better for everybody. It’s better for communities, you know? You don’t want to be a neighbour who has, you know, got somebody next door that dies. That’s not a good feeling and it brings an area down. If we can prevent that, however we prevent it, then it makes these communities better places to live, better places to work, better places to visit. (Police#6)

Indicative of a growing openness to move away from enforcement-based approaches, several participants voiced support for changes to legislation around drug possession and use, ranging from diversion and depenalisation to de jure (legislative) decriminalisation. In relation to diversionary schemes, one participant stated that people who use what they termed ‘hard’ drugs could be offered treatment as opposed to being prosecuted (Police#2). Others expressed the view that simple possession up to a threshold amount should be lifted out of the criminal sphere entirely and instead be addressed by health and social services, without coercion or threat of prosecution:

Like if you have someone with one wrap of heroin on them, you know, is that something that the Government and the [police] could look at and say ‘OK we will take possession of that and we will mark it for destruction with no further proceedings’? It frees up court time, it frees up all this paperwork and stuff like that and then you could signpost these people to drug treatment centres. (Police#9)

Increasing awareness of social and structural drivers of drug harm

Participants described the perception that daily policing practice was increasingly related to dealing with welfare and mental health issues, rather than addressing offending behaviour. They frequently described the police as ill-equipped to address such issues, creating a perceived imperative to explore means of ensuring that such issues were instead managed by appropriate social and health services. It was felt that this would enable the redirection of police resources towards criminal offences which threatened community safety and security. Participants further described how exposure to the social conditions of drug use and the lives of PWUD had led them to better understand that important drivers of ‘drug problems’ were often environmental and structural, and beyond the control of the individual, thus highlighting the limited impact of law enforcement on such issues. One participant highlighted how their personal exposure to the social suffering of affected families and communities had caused them to shift towards viewing drug use as a public health issue: ‘I’ve probably been to, in the number of hundreds of drug deaths, so I’ve seen the impact on families, I’ve seen the impact on these people. (Police#9).

Although participants described an increasing understanding of social issues and their links to drug harms, few participants discussed the role of policing practices in exacerbating such dynamics and the harm experienced by marginalised individuals. Only one participant discussed the harm and stigma incurred by policing practices such as stop and search within a ‘fairly embedded culture’ which was slow to shift:

If you have got somebody who is a drug user, we will stop them on the first grounds, we will search them and deal with them on the street, you know? And that creates stigma because the half a dozen people that walk past the police officer stopping that person in the street are going to say ‘Oh that’s such and such, what’s he been up to? Just another drug user’. (Police#3)

Limits to the shift in public health policing

Despite participants describing a shift in policing culture, there are important caveats to consider. Some participants noted that legislation criminalising personal possession limited the capacity of officers to shift towards a public health approach in practice. This was illustrated in the tension, often inherent in participants’ descriptions of their roles, between two, seemingly contradictory, functions in dealing with drugs—criminalisation of drug possession, and support for PWUD:

Overall, we have two main roles, the police, with regards to substance use. One is the welfare of any people who might be using illegal drugs of any kind. That’s our overarching job description I would suggest for any person in the community…and the other one is obviously enforcement around the Misuse of Drugs Act and in dealing with anybody that breaks that piece of legislation. (Police#4)

Whilst often tentatively supportive of legislative change to decriminalise personal possession, or at least to reduce criminalisation of PWUD, the tension between practices of support and practices of criminalisation was often an uneasy one. Some participants referred to the idea that enforcement was an important aspect of a public health approach, rather than a contradictory and damaging practice, justified on the grounds that: ‘drugs are dangerous and against the law for a reason’ (Police#1).

Participants also acknowledged that the culture within the police was fragmented and was changing unevenly, reporting that many officers were still supportive of enforcement-led approaches. This was demonstrated by one participant’s discussion of the police carriage of naloxone pilot in their local division which ‘generated quite a lot of debate internally’ (Police#4). Participants highlighted the need for education and training to help shift cultures but highlighted that this process would be generational.

Issues and challenges surrounding the policing of DCS

Participants outlined challenges around the policing of DCS within the current legislative framework. They noted a perceived need for either legislative change or national strategic guidance to support local divisions and officers in shifting their practice in the required ways. Participants also discussed different potential approaches to the policing of DCS and the surrounding areas.

Preference for legislative change or national strategic guidance

Participants expressed a strong preference for either legislative changes or national strategic guidance explicitly outlining how the area surrounding the service should be policed. The ideal option for participants seemed to be legislative change to enable policing practices to be more aligned with public health goals, although it was acknowledged that the power to alter drug legislation lay with the UK Government. Noting the potential challenges of securing legislative change, some participants discussed the potential for what might be termed ‘national strategic guidance’ to inform the policing of DCS. This was seen as potentially taking different forms. Most commonly, guidance from the Lord Advocate/Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (prosecution service) was seen as a potential means of providing police with clear guidance and support to employ more public health-oriented practices:

The Lord Advocate would be in the position to say that anyone who is going to or from a drug checking service is not responsible criminally. They would have the power to be able to do that and we would act on those guidelines. (Police#8)

Other potential national guidance discussed included statements issued from senior police officials and Scottish Government. Having clear national guidance, as opposed to relying solely on informal agreements between local divisions and DCS, was seen as important in providing sufficient support for local divisions and officers to alter their practice. One participant described drugs as a ‘massive political hot potato’ and noted that being able to point to clear guidelines from those with the relevant authority around policing practices and processes would help police defuse the political element and justify practices to local communities (Police#5). This was echoed by another participant, who described the need for police to be protected from ‘sensationalising’ news coverage and negative public attitudes:

Well it could be argued that if you are passing the drug checking [service] and you see a known user walking towards it… you know they are going there for a particular reason. So, if you do nothing is that a dereliction of duty? Well yeah it could be, and all you need is a member of the public to film it and say you know… ‘I told him what that was and the officer did nothing. They knew that that person had drugs on them’… and then you are back to your red top papers sensationalising it where actually we could be saving a life. (Police#6)

Others felt that having clear national guidance would reassure individuals planning to use the service that they would not be placed at risk of harassment or arrest for trying to access the DCS. However, even with national strategic guidance in place, there are significant limitations in the extent to which individuals will be protected in the context of criminalisation. As expressed by participants, for a number of reasons it is very challenging to provide a ‘complete blanket’ reassurance to clients that they will be protected from criminalisation (Police#7). Despite such challenges, it was generally felt that relying solely on local informal agreements would leave clients too open to discretionary, inconsistent policing practices.

Policing the areas surrounding a DCS

Participants described concerns around the concept of a ‘tolerance zone’ or ‘boundary agreement’ around DCS. A tolerance zone is, broadly, an agreement on how the area surrounding a DCS would be policed [29, 55, 62]. The details of how such spaces would operate is not well developed and would require careful consideration. Although ‘tolerance zone’ or ‘boundary agreement’ are the terms commonly used in the literature, this paper will herein refer to such arrangements as an ‘enhanced support zone’. This term has been developed in a Scottish context due to its being seen as a more acceptable term amongst a wide range of stakeholders involved in dialogue on the policing and legal challenges facing proposed DCS. Participants tended to interpret the concept of enhanced support zones in two distinct ways: as an arrangement based on limiting police presence in the vicinity of the service and/or limiting the scope of police stop and search in cases of suspected personal possession; or as an agreement to enable police not to charge someone for personal possession, below a threshold quantity [28, 63], within a specified zone.

Although acknowledging that a heavy police presence and use of stop and search in the vicinity of DCS may act as a deterrent to engagement for prospective clients, participants generally expressed discomfort with any arrangement seeking to limit police presence or stop and search. Participants noted a perceived potential for people to take advantage of such arrangements, leading to increased crime and social disorder in the surrounding area:

The challenges are that you might draw in the wrong type of people within that area and you might encourage you know drugs misuse within that area… or drug dealing. People might think they can take advantage of that. (Police#1)

The larger the size of the zone, the more it was perceived as a risk to social order and community security. However, not all participants felt that such arrangements would increase social disorder and crime in the local area. One participant drew on the example of community pharmacies which provide clients with opioid substitution therapy (OST) and injecting equipment provision (IEP) and have established arrangements in relation to policing practice, highlighting that there are ‘very few incidents’ outside pharmacies (Police#4). Although the example of a pharmacy is different from a defined and formalised support zone, it does highlight that policing arrangements concerning DCS can learn from established practices in relation to the policing of other harm reduction interventions.

A related concern discussed by participants was that reduced police presence, or level of stop and search, would curtail the police’s capacity to respond to public concerns, whether real or perceived, around social disorder and crime in the vicinity of the service. Participants felt that this could damage police and public relations and thereby erode the perceived legitimacy of the police. Any restriction on the capacity of police to respond to community concerns was seen as potentially problematic. One participant highlighted, for example, that the police are ‘intelligence-led’, making it difficult for them not to respond to intelligence from the public around perceived criminal behaviour taking place:

It could be a completely false perception but if [the public] say ‘there is drug dealing going on there, that person is drug dealing’, we are sort of put in a situation where even if there is an [enhanced support zone], we are intelligence led, so if there is intelligence that there is drug dealing going on […], we are in the position that we have to go and look at that and speak to somebody. (Police#7)

It should be noted that discussion around an enhanced support zone was, at times, based on a degree of misunderstanding around how such an arrangement would likely work. Two participants conflated simple possession with people consuming drugs in public spaces and noted that the police would be unable to intervene. They did not discuss the range of responses which could be available to them in such a situation, including non-criminalising, welfare, and dialogue-based responses [29]:

If you had a [support] zone, they would tell the police that they no longer have the power of search under the Misuse of Drugs Act. So, you are then left in the crazy situation where police officers, or anybody else, are left looking at somebody shooting up drugs, swallowing Valium, doing whatever it is they are doing, and then we can only interact when it looks like they are in danger of harming themselves? (Police#4)

Close working relationships between DCS and police were described as important to managing the relations between service, people who use the service, wider community, and police:

It’s a sort of three-way thing where the police would need to liaise with [the service] and also, you know, the general public, and if any issues are being raised by the general public the police would need to let [the service] know, and vice versa. If you think you will get complaints from the public about your service, then you would need to feed that back to the police. (Police#1)

As noted, the other way in which participants often envisioned an enhanced support zone operating was for personal possession to be ‘decriminalised’ or ‘depenalised’ (either formally through legislative change or through expansions to police discretionary powers), up to a threshold quantity, within a specified zone around the service. This was seen as a more feasible approach than relying on a reduction in police presence and stop and search practices, although participants still discussed challenges in relation to such an approach. It was highlighted that police would need to operate with clearly defined possession limits, beyond which possession would still be considered a criminal offence. A couple of pills or a small amount of powder were described as potential threshold limits, with an emphasis on a small amount necessary for the testing process. One participant described the need to ensure that people were aware of these limits so that ‘everybody is clear about what they can get away with and what they can’t get away with’ (Police#1).

While most participants discussed an enhanced support zone as a space with formalised changes to police practice in the ways outlined above, some described the potential for a less formalised approach. Such an approach was described as being based on an understanding around the policing of DCS which should be aligned with the desire for people to engage with the service, drawing on established practices regarding community pharmacies and IEP sites. Although police are aware that people receiving IEP, for example, would likely be in possession of drugs, they do not generally target people accessing this service as it is agreed that such practice is not in the interest of public health. One participant explained that agreement around DCS would need to be based on similar principles:

It just needs to be explained to the people using it that the police aren’t looking at this as somewhere that they are going to be watching with binoculars, standing outside, knowing everyone’s details. But that they are aware that there is harm reduction going on here and that it actually fits their expectation of what they can do to reduce harm in the community. (Police#7)

The integration of drug checking in existing harm reduction services was therefore seen as positive by enabling police to refrain from targeting people entering or leaving the service, as people could be accessing the service for various reasons—limiting probable cause for stop and search. Although such an approach would have less defined rules in relation to policing of a DCS, participants highlighted that they still felt it would require national strategic guidance and support from high level actors, as opposed to solely localised agreements.

The role of officer discretion

Participants highlighted that, short of legislative change to decriminalise personal possession, people accessing the service may still be vulnerable to harassment, surveillance, and being charged when attempting to access the service. Participant discussion of police officer discretion and local policing cultures, and the consequent impact of such factors on the policing of PWUD, particularly those who could be considered marginalised, highlights the potential risks faced by individuals trying to access DCS, even in the event of a national agreement around the policing of these services. One such issue raised related to police using DCS as an ‘avenue’ to identify people ‘wanted on warrants’ for other offences (Police#9). Relatedly, the potential for police to use DCS to identify and target suppliers was discussed, with one participant acknowledging that ‘it won’t be the big boys who are doing this, it will be the runners, you know, probably the users or young people on their way down that route’ (Police#6). Some participants highlighted that, given officers would always be able to find ways around agreements in relation to policing of DCS, there would be a need for local divisions and officers to buy in to the concept of drug checking, and to understand why such practices are counter-productive from a public health standpoint. It was highlighted that there may be a need for a ‘real shift in culture to make it work efficiently’ (Police#9).

Interestingly, despite the examples outlined above of how police could circumvent the spirit of agreements around the policing of DCS, the role of discretion in daily policing was often not an explicit feature in participant accounts. Participants instead described Police Scotland as a ‘structured’, ‘disciplined’ and ‘hierarchical’ organisation: ‘You know it’s a disciplined service and we will basically do what we are told’ (Police#10). Due to this perception frontline policing was often seen a process of straightforwardly enforcing the ‘law on the books’ [27]:

There is some legislation that we’ve got more leeway than others. But we cannot ignore people in possession of drugs. We cannot, we can’t do it whether we want to or not. (Police#4)

The absence of explicit consideration of the role of discretion was apparent in relation to discussions of stop and search practices, and when it is deemed necessary to subject someone to this process. Some participants implicitly described utilising various discretion-based judgements to determine whether there was probable cause to stop and search someone for suspected possession:

So, you are speaking to somebody, and it looks as if they are already under the influence and as if they’ve already consumed some drugs, that would be the way you’d look at it and you’d be like, you know, ‘Are you okay? Why are you acting the way you are acting just now, is it because, you know, is it a mental health issue, is it a drug substance issue?’ You know you would see the froth around the mouth, certain drugs that were taken would have like a distinctive… not froth it’s more of a white, you can see a white ring around the mouth, you’d use that, ‘You look like you’ve taken drugs and we are going to search you to check you don’t have more on you at the moment’. But aye it’s, that’s kind of the way I look at it, the justification for stopping and searching somebody. (Police#2)

Another participant highlighted the role discretion plays when deciding to stop and search someone. They described knowing that someone was accessing a DCS as probable cause for stop and search, highlighting how, in the absence of robust agreements around the policing of DCS, police officers who are less supportive of public health approaches can apply their discretion in ways which are detrimental to harm reduction objectives. Another participant felt that ‘discretion’ was not an appropriate term to use when describing the decision to stop and search someone as ‘you must have probable cause to search somebody’ (Police#9). However, they noted that this may be based on judgements such as the appearance of a person as ‘technically drug users present a certain appearance’. Participants also described how directives from higher ranking officials can shape the practice of stop and search, and how discretion is exercised in relation to such factors. They described a past instance where a Chief Constable had applied pressure on the organisation to increase instances of stop and search:

We had a time when we had a Chief Constable who just basically just…was encouraging stop and search constantly, you know, everybody has to stop and search because they wanted targets etc… they wanted to reduce crime. (Police#1)

These comments highlight that, while decisions to stop and search were described as being based on the concept of ‘probable cause’, such decisions were implicitly described by participants as shaped by both individual officer discretion and institutional factors at local and national level. The description of appearance as a deciding factor in whether to stop and search someone is particularly demonstrative of the role of discretion, and potential for discrimination, in stop and search practices.

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