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Drug Policy and the Fight for Black Lives

Drug policy continues to be used as a means of social and racial control​, fracturing black communities and maintaining the economic and societal dominance of white people.
Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

This year is the 50th anniversary of Release, the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. To celebrate, they are hosting the Museum of Drug Policy in London from the 3rd to the 5th of November – a free event for which VICE is a media partner. To find out more, click here.

In an era of neoliberal racial capitalism, emboldened far-right organisations and the failure of our supposed democracies to achieve basic human rights – not to mention heightened mass surveillance, continuing environmental degradation and the so-called refugee crisis – the world is not looking safe for most people. For those of us who don't directly benefit from white supremacy, it's looking decidedly unsafe. As anti-racist organisers, we recognise the importance of understanding how white supremacy and racism show up in our lives, and how they are inscribed into policies across our own governments and around the globe.


This week, Release – the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law – celebrates 50 years of providing free and confidential advice to the public, and campaigning for the reform of drug policy. Drug policy reform is a central tenet of the fight for black lives. In order to understand this, we need to recognise the varying ways that drug policy is used to criminalise, incarcerate and kill black people in the UK criminal justice system.

Our ideas and misconceptions about drugs, addiction and criminality mean that, as a nation, we condone drug policy that is punitive rather than health-centred and fact-based. In a 2009 study on the misuse of drugs, Professor David Nutt stated that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than many illegal drugs. This suggests that derivative moral judgements as opposed to facts about drugs – and racialised logic about "criminals" – is shaping UK drug policy. This is bad for all of us, and bad in particular ways for black communities. Analysis of sentencing data from 2015 shows that, at the Crown Court, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) defendants were more likely than white defendants to receive prison sentences for drug offences, even when factors such as past convictions are taken into account. The recent Lammy Review into the treatment of, and outcomes for BAME individuals in the Criminal Justice System reported that black boys are more than ten times as likely as white boys to be arrested for drug offences.


WATCH: How Weed Laws Are Failing the UK

The Lammy Review has also revealed that, in the UK, we incarcerate a higher percentage of our black population than the USA. This cycle is perpetuated by high rates of black youth sent to young offenders institutions on non-violent drug offences or purported gang affiliation, demonstrating that criminality is unfairly associated with black people with regard to drug policy and policing. Despite making up just 14 percent of the UK population, non-white people make up 25 percent of adult prisoners, while over 40 percent of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds. Understood in another way, if our prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison – the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons.

At it's most distasteful, drug policy looks like a news heading that reads "Young dad who died after police struggle 'boasted of drug dealing on Facebook and dubbed himself Hard To Kill'" after 20-year-old Rashan Charles dies, shortly after being restrained by the police. Footage of the incident, which happened in east London in July of this year, appeared to show him swallowing a package. This led to speculation that the package contained illegal drugs, which was later proven false, despite being widely emphasised in media reports. Suspecting that somebody may have swallowed drugs to avoid being reprimanded by the police is not so much the issue. It is the defamation of Charles' character based on such a speculation that is a problem, and one that is certainly not unique to this case.


When black and working class people die in or after police custody, the media narrative in the immediate aftermath is, time after time, a character assassination. The realities shared by many at the United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC) Annual Remembrance Procession last weekend highlighted this. Rashan Charles' death was justified in public consciousness because we viewed him as a morally abhorrent character – somebody who not only consumed drugs, but sold them too. The message was that this black man was a criminal, and the logic extended that he therefore deserved his fate. It falls on all of us to consistently push back against this, and to speak up when our drug policies reflect and uphold such deadly narratives. From the moment Rashan Charles came into contact with the police, a young black father was shrouded in unfounded criminality and deep-seated anti-black racism.

These sentiments also manifest in the disproportionate outcomes of stop-and-search practices. Latest figures show that 62 percent of all stop-and-searches in England and Wales are conducted on suspicion of drugs, mostly for low level possession offences. And while the numbers of stops have declined overall in recent years, the rate of stops have fallen more for white individuals (28 percent) than BAME individuals (11 percent). Despite recent reforms to better police accountability and promote good practice, racial disproportionality continues to increase year after year. According to Police Powers and Procedures (year ending 31st of March, 2017), "BME groups were just under four times as likely to be stopped as those who considered themselves to be white", and for "the black group" they are "over eight times more likely in the latest year [2016/17]". Without an understanding of how central drug policy is in the fight for black lives, even seemingly progressive reform can benefit white individuals more than black individuals. We need to be attentive to how institutional racism works so we can put a stop to it.



Preliminary findings from The Lammy Review also noted that for every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at Crown Courts for drug offences, 227 black women were sentenced to custody. According to the Prison Reform Trust, women are the fastest growing prison population in the UK. Many of them are foreign nationals who have been trafficked or coerced into committing nonviolent drug offences. Take the case of an African woman whose son was kidnapped and who needed money for the legal fees to regain custody of him. On arrival to the UK she was caught carrying 5 kilograms of cocaine in her suitcase, reprimanded in custody and sentenced to over six years in prison. This example highlights how UK drug policies fail to acknowledge the vulnerabilities and specific needs of people in difficult situations. Laws such as these are harmful for families and often result in children ending up in the foster care system, increasing their likelihood of ending up incarcerated as adults. This vicious cycle has a destructive effect on many families in the UK.

The War on Drugs is fuelling human rights violations around the world, and is doing little to reduce the harms of drug use. A condition of US aid packages in countries such as Colombia demands that governments implement increasingly punitive measures to end drug wars every year. This money fuels the militarisation of the police, increasing police killings and incarceration of civilians. According to a report by Amnesty, police in Brazil killed 920 people in Rio de Janeiro during 2016, most of them of African heritage.


Alternatives to drug prohibition have had considerable success – most notably in Portugal, which experienced numerous positive health and social benefits after decriminalising the possession of all drugs in 2001. Ghana looks set to be the next country, and the first in Africa, to follow suit. And in the last year, a huge number of states in the USA moved to make marijuana legally accessible for users or those who are prescribed it for medical reasons. Racial tensions must be examined with this push for legalisation; how is it that the election of Trump runs parallel to the widespread public approval of marijuana consumption across the USA?

The answer lies in our perceptions of race and racism, and their manifestations in the criminal justice system. The North American opioid epidemic, vastly associated with white people, and shows like Breaking Bad have normalised white drug use and drug sellers, creating a sense of empathy. But this empathy does not extend to most black people, who are consistently associated with drugs and criminality, despite consuming half as many drugs as white people in the UK.

Drug policy continues to be used as a means of social and racial control, fracturing black communities and maintaining the economic and societal dominance of white people. While black people are still serving sentences for small-scale possession of marijuana, white people with clear records are opening up legal cannabis dispensaries on the same corners that those black people were arrested. Formerly incarcerated people are prevented from getting involved in the industry, thus further preventing huge amounts of black people – and black men in particular – from generating a sustainable livelihood in a booming industry. A recent collaboration between Jay-Z and Dream Hampton gave us this engaging video to bring further light to this issue, and Ava Duvernay's documentary The 13th is also illuminating. Luckily for us all, both will be screened at the Museum of Drug Policy event in London, starting tomorrow.

At times like these, it can be tempting to close our eyes, retreat into survival mode and pretend none of this is preventable. But it isn't feasible to build and populate the number of prisons that the current system of drug policy requires and advocates for. Redefining our notions of what is criminal and how we treat those who commit offences – and what we will and won't condone – must be our priority. If, like us, you are keen to expand your understanding of drugs, addiction, criminality and institutional racism, the Museum of Drug Policy should undoubtedly be your first port of call.

To find out more about Release's free 50th anniversary event, click here.