The Metropolitan Police and three other forces should trial cannabis decriminalisation in order to tackle the high number of young people from ethnic minorities needlessly entering the criminal justice system, according to a controversial government-backed race review.
Published today, the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities commissioned by Downing Street, said it was “troubled” by the “disproportionate criminalisation of young people, often from ethnic minority and deprived backgrounds, through their personal use of cannabis and other soft drugs”.
The report recommended that four of the six force areas making the highest number of drug arrests – the Met, Merseyside, West Yorkshire and Humberside – should set up pilot drug “diversion” schemes, where people caught with small quantities of cannabis are not arrested and instead offered advice. The other two forces with high numbers of drug arrests, West Midlands and Thames Valley, are already one of several forces around the country trialling drug diversion schemes.
The report said: “The Commission wants to urgently address the disproportionate number of ethnic minority young people going into the criminal justice system as a result of low-level Class B drug possession. The Commission is not advocating or endorsing the legalisation of Class B drugs, however, it points to examples such as the Thames Valley and West Midlands Police drug diversion models to keep these young people away from gaining a criminal record, while trying to address the root cause of their drug use.”
Black and Asian people are much more likely to be stop-and-searched than white people. Looking for drugs is the most common reason given by police for searches, although one former chief inspector said that police routinely use drug search powers to bully and harass people.
The racial disparity is especially acute in London, where the Metropolitan Police is responsible for almost half of all police stops in England and Wales and where searches skyrocketed over lockdown last year.
The report noted cannabis arrests result in too many young people gaining a criminal record, which often dents opportunities in education and employment. It added there was no evidence to show that reducing punishments for drug possession increases drug use among young people, and that drug diversions schemes have successfully reduced low level drug convictions.
The pilot schemes would, if given the go-ahead by the government, be run by the College of Policing alongside the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the National Police Chief’s Council.
"In the absence of decriminalisation, the report’s recommendation to divert young people away from the criminal justice system through drug diversion is a step in the right direction,” said Laura Garius, policy lead at drug information charity Release. “These schemes do have the potential to divert people away from the system, and the focus on Class B drug possession aligns with the role that cannabis policing plays in driving inequity.”
Garius said the recommendations should go further to include possession of all drugs, as it does for those forces already running diversion schemes, and the inclusion of low-level supply offences should also be considered.
“It is not yet known whether such schemes will succeed in reducing ethnic disparity, and as such it is imperative that this is included in any and all evaluations, and that an openness to re-route, or expand, such schemes, is maintained.”