The UK Needs to Take a Racial Justice Approach to Drug Policy

In the US, drug policy is seen as a racial justice issue. We should view it through the same lens.
November 2, 2018, 10:31am
stop and search london
A man being stop and searched in west London. Photo: Thabo Jaiyesimi / Alamy Stock Photo

Niamh Eastwood is the Executive Director of Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law.

The oppression of people of colour in the name of the "war on drugs" has long been associated with mass incarceration and the overuse of stop-and-search.

Of those incarcerated for drug offences in US federal prisons, nearly 80 percent are black or Latino. In state prisons, these groups account for almost 60 percent of the prison population. Cannabis laws in the US also heavily fall on the black community, with African-Americans nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug compared to the white population, despite using cannabis at roughly the same rate as the white population.


The issue of race and drugs is not just a problem in the United States. Around the world we see people of colour being subject to police harassment, arrest, imprisonment and even, in some countries, the use of extrajudicial killings – all under the guise of repressing the drugs trade. This is why there is a need for people of colour to come together to discuss the impact of drugs policy, policing and enforcement on themselves and their communities.

This weekend sees the launch of "Regenerate" – a black-centred UK arts festival focused on the intersections of drug policy, racial justice and liberation. The festival will be hosted by UglyDuck, as part of their Art & (H)aktivism season, which explores how art and creativity can be used to advocate for social change, and will be held at their building in Bermondsey, London.

Release is proud to support this festival, which is being produced by two brilliant racial justice activists, Imani Robinson and Camille Barton, in collaboration with Project Mission Gallery. The timing of this event could not be more pertinent, with recent research produced by Release, StopWatch and the London School of Economics showing that drug policy is driving racial disparity in the criminal justice system across England and Wales.

As in the US – and other countries around the globe – the UK has a drugs and race problem. Black people are disproportionality targeted by drug law enforcement, despite using drugs at a lesser rate than white people. Last year, black people were almost nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs compared to white people. The scale of drug stop-and-searches is deeply concerning. Sixty percent of all stop-and-searches are for drugs, and despite calls from police and politicians – including the Home Secretary – for increased stop-and-search to tackle knife crime, the percentage of drug searches compared to other grounds of stop-and-search are at an all-time high.


These searches are largely not concerned with supply of drugs, but rather low-level possession offences; it is estimated that 70 percent of all drug searches are for possession of drugs for personal use.

I Went Stop and Searching in Soho with the London Met

Drugs laws as a tool of racial oppression and social control have been evident since prohibition began at the beginning of the 20th century. That pattern continues today. People living in deprived areas of London are subject to greater levels of stop and searches for drugs. Conversely, the rate of drug searches is much lower in affluent areas of the capital, and racial disparity is greater.

For example, the rate of drug searches in Tower Hamlets is 15 searches per 1,000 members of the population. Compare this to Richmond upon Thames, where the rate is 3.3 per 1,000 members of the population. Despite the low rates of drug searches in the borough of Richmond, racial disparity is the highest in London: black people are stopped and searched for drugs at nine times the rate of white people. Again, it is important to remember that drug use is ubiquitous across different socioeconomic groups, and is more prevalent among the white population – yet, it is poorer people and people of colour who remain the primary target of law enforcement.

This racial disparity is not limited to stop-and-search, but is evident throughout the criminal justice system. Black people are disproportionally arrested for personal possession of drugs while white people are more likely to benefit from out of court disposals for the same offence. Black people are almost 12 times more likely to be sentenced for possession of cannabis than the white population, despite being less likely to use the drug. Black people are more likely to be prosecuted for a drugs offence, they're more likely to be sent to prison for a drugs offence… the list goes on.

In the US, drug policy is seen as a racial justice issue. Racial justice organisations and movements, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Black Lives Matter and communities of colour, are at the forefront of the drug policy reform debate. They have been highlighting the damage drug prohibition has done to their communities and have been vocal in ensuring reforms, such as cannabis legalisation, do not exclude those who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

This weekend is an opportunity to join racial justice activists in London, to start these conversations, to discuss the impact of drug policy on black communities in the UK, to imagine what drug policy reform based on a racial justice model look like. We are excited to partner and support this work and we recognise that real reform can only be achieved by working with the communities who have been so negatively affected by drug policy.

Regenerate is open on Saturday and Sunday – all exhibitions and events for the public are free, and will take place at Ugly Duck, 47-49 Tanner Street. The venue is located between London Bridge and Bermondsey tube stations. The event is supported by VICE and by Open Society Foundations.