Drug laws drive racism in the justice system

The numbers in black and white

The conclusions of a recent report from Release and the London School of Economics and Political Science into the enforcement of drug laws in England and Wales are blunt and make for depressingly familiar reading:

  • Black and Asian communities have lower rates of illegal drug use than the white majority.
  • BUT, enforcement of drug laws is unfairly focused on these communities.
  • Black and Asian people are stopped and searched for drugs at a much higher rate than white people.
  • Black people are subject to harsher sanctions for drug possession offences.

The report is based on analysis of official statistics provided by the MoJ and the Metropolitan police for 2009/10. and is written by Niamh Eastwood, Director of Release and Michael Shiner and Daniel Bear from the LSE.

Release racial disparity

The main findings

The main findings clearly show the large extent to which drug laws are disproportionately applied on ethnic grounds:

  • Every 58 seconds someone in England and Wales is stopped and searched by the police for drugs.
  • The rate of drug searches for white people is 7 per 1000,
  • The rate of drug searches for mixed race people is 14 per 1000,
  • The rate of drug searches for Asian people is 18 per 1000,
  • The rate of drug searches for Black people is 45 per 1000,
  • Black people are arrested for a drugs offence at 6 times the rate of white people
  • Asian people are arrested at almost twice the rate of whites.
  • Across London black people are charged for possession of cannabis at 5 times the rate of white people.
  • Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences 4.5 times the rate of whites; are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate; and are subject to immediate custody at a rate of 5 times that of white people

release cocaine

A call for change

After a careful analysis of the data, the report makes a very strong call for change. It argues that for too long the UK Government has focussed on the use of the criminal laws to deter drug use, despite evidence that such an approach does not work.

The authors contend that not only is this disproportionate application of the law unfair, but that it actively backfires against the police, undermining their legitimacy and, ultimately, making it harder for them to do their job.

The report concludes with a plea for government to review the current law enforcement approach to drug possession.


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