THE BLOG

Why the Drug Laws in the UK Must Be Reformed if the Government Truly Wants to Address the Racial Disparities in Stop and Search

22/08/2013 21:47 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 10:12 BST

A new report, by Release and the London School of Economics and Political Science, demonstrates that the focus of stop and search in England and Wales is not guns or knives but low level drug possession offences - this was also confirmed in a recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary. In the last 12 months over half a million people have been stopped and searched for drugs, that equates to one person being searched every 58 seconds, the arrest rate is 7%.

Anecdotally, we have always known that black and minority ethnic communities were being disproportionately targeted through stop and search for drugs. The evidence from the report confirms that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people and Asian people are twice as likely to be subject to this police intervention. This is despite the fact that Government figures show that both groups have lower levels of drug use than the white population.

The report also shows that black people are being treated more harshly when caught in possession of drugs. In 2010 the Metropolitan Police charged 78% of black people caught in possession of cocaine compared with 44% of whites. The data also shows that they are more likely to receive a tougher sentence at court for a drug possession offence.

These statistics support the position that the drug laws are failing. The policing and prosecution of drug offences is not being equally applied to all those who use drugs. It is impossible for the State to police the estimated three million people who use drugs annually in the UK. Instead, certain groups are the focus of enforcement.

The inequality that exists throughout the criminal justice system demonstrates that many from the black community are subject to substantially different treatment than those from the white community. Not only does this disproportionality harm individuals policed and prosecuted for minor drug offences, but this potentially seriously impacts on the trust and confidence these communities will have in the police and the criminal justice system.

Despite decades of identifying poor policing practices that result in a negative relationship, and treatment, of the black community, little has changed in terms of the racial disparity that occurs, and arguably the rates and depth of disparity have worsen. Significant policy reform is the only way to achieve a positive change in policing practices in this area. In other parts of world, where drug policing has been used as a tool to control and contain certain sections of society, the issue of drug policy reform has been at the forefront of the debate.

New York City has one of the worst rates of racial disparity in terms of its citizens being stopped and frisked. Nearly 400,000 were stopped and frisked in NYC in 2011 alone. Like in the UK, this was largely driven by drugs (primarily cannabis) and it disproportionately impacted on blacks and hispanics.

The situation in New York has led to politicians, including the Governor, to call for reforms in state drugs legislation that would decriminalise the possession of cannabis in a public place. State officials have recognised that the only way to change police behaviour is to change the law around the possession of cannabis. It is time for the UK government to address the significant damage being done by the policing of drug possession offences and to consider the alternative, namely, the decriminalisation of drug possession.

Every year we needlessly stop and search hundreds of thousands of people for drugs subjecting individuals to an intrusive and humiliating experience. In the last 15 years we have convicted over half a million people for possession of a controlled drug and a further half a million have received a caution for this offence, meaning we have criminalised approximately a million people in England and Wales for simple possession of a drug. Of those million, well over 50% were criminalised for cannabis possession.

The human cost of a criminal record can be devastating. As well as stigmatising it impacts negatively on employment opportunities and educational aspirations. The economic cost to the UK in terms of police resources, CPS time, defence costs and court costs is clearly significant. Additionally, there is a loss to the State and society in relation to a person losing their employment or not reaching their potential.

The only way to significantly change the practices of the police is to change the fundamental nature of policing and what the police are charged with investigating or searching for. Ending the criminalisation of drug use would remove the need to unnecessarily search hundreds of thousands of people every year. Thus ensuring that the numbers of people, especially those from the black community, caught up in the criminal justice system is significantly reduced.

Get involved in Release's campaign to decriminalise drugs.