(RE)think piece

Drug law reform is crucial to address racism in the UK

Drug law reform is crucial to address racism in the UK

Phillipa Gelland and Aminah Chowdhury

With drug-related deaths on the rise and criminalisation having little effect on drug use, it has become increasingly evident that the UK’s drug policy has failed on its own merits. In this piece, Senior Legal Adviser and solicitor, Phillipa Gelland, and Legal Caseworker and human rights specialist, Aminah Chowdhury, from the leading drugs charity Release make the case for a harm reduction approach. They explore how the UK’s current drug policy acts as a driver of systemic racism, and why decriminalisation is the only way forward, using their expertise to outline what this would look like.

As other countries around the world move away from the ‘war on drugs’, experimenting with various models of drug control, the UK government seems adamant in maintaining its draconian approach to drug policy. This approach, created over half a century ago, has caused more harm than solved the issues around drug use. The direness of the British drug policy system has only accelerated: the rate of drug poisoning deaths was 46.6 per million people in 2012; this has increased uninterruptedly since then, rising by 81.1% by 2021 (84.4 deaths per million).

The UK is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in terms of drug-related deaths in Europe, a stark reminder of the human cost of policy failures.

Ultimately, the legal system surrounding drug prohibition is an effective tool which establishes and sustains racial divides across British society. Simon Wooley, chairman of the race disparity advisory group, acknowledged this when he described British drug laws as “a tool of systemic racism”. This racial inequality enforced by the prohibition of drugs plays a major role in the expansion of police powers and the carceral system overall. 

In the UK, the Black community is disproportionately affected by the drug enforcement system, most visible through the police’s use of stop and search. Police have cited that the main reason behind stopping someone was to search for drugs, accounting for 69% of all searches.

Taking a closer look, the over-policing of Black communities is demonstrated by the fact that in every police force in England and Wales the stop and search rate for Black people is higher than their white counterparts. More recently, the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent derided the UK’s institutional racism within its criminal justice system, specifically naming the “dehumanising” nature of police’s stop and search policing strategy as a key driver of trauma.

A punitive approach to drug policy comes hand in hand with high incarceration rates.

It’s vital to understand that high incarceration rates for drug offences within a community is not truly reflective of the rates of drug use. Rather, they are indicative of the police’s attitudes and biases towards the community and the deliberate targeting of them. Again, we see significant ethnic disparities in the incarceration of minorities for drug offences, compared to all indictable offences: our research highlighted that Black people were prosecuted for drug offences at 8.6 times the rate of white people in 2017, compared with 3.7 times the rate for all offences. 

At Release, we strongly advocate for the decriminalisation of all drugs. Additionally, we argue that drug laws should actually focus on alleviating the structural inequalities- such as the expungement of criminal records, and redirecting policing funds to public health interventions- that are perpetuated by the current punitive approach to drug control.

The statistics around the criminalisation of drug use and personal possession of drugs outline a racist and wholly ineffective model, failing at its own intended goals of reducing drug use and saving lives. For the past 30 years, drug use has remained remarkably resilient in the UK, despite the threat of criminal sanctions. However, the criminalisation of drug use – and particularly personal possession – has perpetuated harmful social inequalities through the uneven application of the criminal sanctions, and by creating further barriers to healthcare-led responses to problematic drug use. 

Why decriminalisation would work for the UK

We know what alternatives exist that would improve the lives of people who use drugs and those around them. There are over 30 jurisdictions worldwide that have decriminalised the use, possession, and in some cases the social sharing of drugs between people. As with any policy, decriminalisation varies from country to country; however, the vast majority remove all criminal sanctions for drug consumption and possession, removing a key driver of contact for people with the criminal justice system.

Any adequate and effective decriminalisation model must include: the involvement of people who use drugs in decision-making, the removal of any punishment (including civil penalties) for personal possession of drugs, meaningful thresholds for permitted possession, its implementation to young people, and the expungement of criminal records and immediate release from prison for anyone who has a criminal records for drug use and/or personal possession.

Involvement of people who use drugs

Any policy change that affects one group of people will be more accurate and effective when it is informed by the living and lived experience from people from that group. It is counter-intuitive to implement policies that are not properly informed by the main targets of that policy and expect it to work well. As activists chant, “nothing about us, without us”. 

No punishment for possession

Decriminalisation should mean that there is no punishment at all for personal possession of drugs. Criminal sanctions do not deter drug use, and there is no practical difference when civil sanctions are applied instead. As a result of this ineffectiveness, no sanctions of any kind should be applied to personal drug possession or use.

Meaningful thresholds

Thresholds for the amount of drugs that a person can possess without attracting any form of sanction must be set at a meaningful level, informed by purchasing trends and those with living experience. This is because some decriminalisation models impose threshold limits that are so small, that a criminalisation model is essentially still in force, undermining the entire spirit of decriminalisation.

Young people

Decriminalisation should be extended to minors. The criminalisation of drugs for those under the age of 18 maintains the same negative social impacts as the existing criminalisation model. Currently, the criminalisation of drugs, primarily cannabis, is an entry into the criminal justice system. Criminal records for minors can have a major impact on young person’s life chances, impacting their likelihood of securing employment, education and social mobility later in life. As we’ve shown, young Black men in the UK are the most likely to be targeted by the police, especially in relation to drugs. As such, the continued criminalisation of drug use by young people will simply push issues of over-policing, racism, lack of access to education, barriers to housing, and other challenges onto young people, disproportionately impacting those of colour.

Expungement of records and release from prison

A decriminalisation model must include the immediate expungement of records, as well as the  release from prison of those convicted of simple possession. Without this, the negative social impacts of a criminalisation model remain in place, and will still cause harm to those who have already been harmed by past policing practices. As Black people are most likely to be incarcerated for drug possession, the expungement of records will be one step towards reparations, and help reverse the disproportionate impact that drugs policing has had on the Black community. The racial disparity that exists at stop and search for Black people is reflected in the arrest rates.

A decriminalisation model that includes all of these considerations in a meaningful manner will begin to address the systemic social and racial disparities that the criminalisation of drugs and the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has created and perpetuated since its inception. While it will not magically remove the damage or threat of over-policing and racial disparities within the criminal justice system, a decriminalisation model coupled with effective harm reduction and health focused initiatives can reduce problematic drug use and other health harms, as well as address the social issues caused by the over-policing of personal drug use.

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