PEOPLE caught with 'small quantities' of illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine, will escape punishment in a new initiative.

The drugs diversion pilot scheme, launched in West Berkshire, is set to be rolled out across Oxfordshire if the three-month trial now under way is deemed to reduce 'drugs-related harm and demand'.

The scheme allows offenders in possession of 'small quantities' of drugs an opportunity to be offered a tailored 'diversion route' educational course to address their drug use, instead of facing prosecution.

Thames Valley Police said 'diversion routes' begin at an appointment with a 'local drugs service provider', but it is not clear what else they entail. The force has also not given a definition of 'small quantities'.

However, it has said that offenders found to be in possession of larger quantities of drugs, those suspected of dealing, and those who do not engage with specialist support, will still face arrest and prosecution.

Assistant Chief Constable Jason Hogg said: “This scheme is about working closely with our partners, the drug service providers, to offer a tailored programme of support.

“We hope this will allow those who are offending for the first time, young people for example, an opportunity to become educated about the risks drugs pose and for those with established addictions to seek specialist treatment.

“On a long-term basis this is a move towards preventing the tragedy that too many families face of losing a loved one to a drugs-related death.”

The initiative has been backed by Anne-Marie Cockburn, from Oxford, whose daughter Martha Fernback died aged 15 in 2013 after taking ecstasy at Hinksey Park off Abingdon Road.

Since her daughter's death Ms Cockburn has campaigned for drugs to be legalised and regulated.

Referring to the initiative, she said: "I am in support of this as we know that most street-level dealers are very vulnerable individuals who have either been exploited or who are self-medicating due to trauma.

"This is a humane and more visionary approach based on what is really going on, which will provide better support to the young and vulnerable members of society.

"I'm still campaigning to have all drugs legally regulated – I'm heading to Finland in March to meet health ministers there and to speak at a Drug Policy event."

Statistics released in August showed cocaine deaths last year in England and Wales rose by 15 per cent, with an estimated 875,000 people using the Class A drug.

Thames Valley Police said the new approach would cut the time spent dealing with any possession offence from 12 hours to 20 minutes.

Me Hogg said it was 'definitely the case' the approach would allow officers to be deployed to other areas, but added it was 'not the reason' for the scheme.

He said: "There is nothing soft about trying to save lives.

"This is an exciting pilot scheme and is not a step change towards decriminalisation of drugs. Offenders will have one chance to take part in the scheme and if they fail to engage with it, they could find themselves in a courtroom being prosecuted if they are found in possession of drugs in the future.

"By not bringing a person in to police custody and using a diversion route, finite police resources will not be stretched further by dealing with those best suited towards receiving help or education. This will enable officers to focus on policing priorities, including tackling organised crime and drug dealing in our local communities."

Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner Anthony Stansfeld added: “Reducing re-offending is a key priority in my Police and Crime Plan and I fully support this pilot programme which, if successful, will prevent the cycle of drug-related reoffending."

The new initiative comes after Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Police and Oxfordshire County Council launched a new Oxford Public Spaces Drugs Taskforce in October.

The taskforce is targeting three hotspots at a time – starting with Grandpont, Meadow Lane and South Park – and carrying out activity to tackle drug dealing and taking in the area, including covert and high-visibility patrols, arrests of drug dealers, intelligence gathering, and engaging with the community.

Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council's executive board member for a safer and greener environment, said: "I can understand it if some members of the public are concerned that individuals with small quantities of drugs are not being taken to the police station but I would hope people recognise that in times of stretched resources police have to prioritise by targeting the organised drug gangs.

"Diverting young people away from a life of crime is right for them and right for society."