Despite taking fewer illegal drugs than their white peers, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs in the UK, according to a report by Release and the London School for Economics (LSE) this month.
This is just an national average though and in some areas the discrepancy is much higher. If you live in Dorset, for example, you are 17 times more likely to stopped in the street and searched for drugs if you happen to be black.The inequality doesn’t stop there, because if found with drugs, black people are then twice as likely to be charged as white offenders.
If you are black and caught with cocaine in London, for example, there’s a 78% chance you will face charges if you are black but only a 44% if you are lucky enough to be white. If you are a Londoner who prefers to smoke rather than snort and you are caught with cannabis your chances of being charged if black nearly doubles (12.4% if you are white, 21.5% if you are black). You might hope that once you are in court, justice will be blind and treat you equally, but black people are jailed at six times the rate of white offenders. While it might be overegging the pudding to say being black in the UK is a criminal offence, it seems it is at least an aggravating circumstance.
The study, which used Home Office data and freedom of information responses from police forces across England and Wales, found that drug policy was a major cause of racial inequality in the justice system. The rule of thumb from the study seems to be that the fewer black people are in an area, the greater the legal handicap of being black. The government’s crime survey shows that white people use drugs more frequently than most non-white communities but the black slant to the stop and search figures shows that police forces just don’t believe this.
Home secretary Theresa May launched a consultation on stop and search powers in July and this will look at the racial disparity in the figures as well as asking why of 1.2m searches each year only 7% lead to arrests. It is lazy to compare the UK to the US too blindly as we are different nations with different race relation histories but Eugene Jarecki’s groundbreaking documentary The House I Live In exposed the myths, lies and misconceptions which underpin the American war on drugs. Jarecki argues that recreational drugs like opium, marijuana and cocaine were largely tolerated in the US until they became associated with non-white groups who threatened jobs.
African Americans make up 13% of cocaine users 90% of the prison population. The penalty for possessing crack, which is much more prevalent in black communities, is 18 times that for the same amount of powered coke, the choice of young whites. I guess this shows progress because until recently the penalty was 100 times as severe. While drug use has hardly budged, prison populations have soared and running private prisons has become big business. Earlier this month, a former judge from Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella, was sentenced to 28 years for taking almost £1m payments from private prison firms for jailing children. The idea of judges getting paid by private prisons to send them more black inmates seems farfetched in the UK but as we move to more private prisons, is it really unthinkable having seen how Home Offices suppliers like Serco and G4S have acted recently?
The Voice reported this month an alarming rise in the number young black people in Britain’s jails The paper reported that the number of black inmates at young offenders incarcerated in the UK had surged in April, May and June of this year by 10.4 percent, while white youths in custody had fallen by 42%. This is more than just another tale of woe from the black community, these counterproductive drug laws hit the whole country.
Sir Richard Branson led a group of public figures, including Sting, Russell Brand and Dame Joan Bakewell this month, calling for a major rethink of our drug laws and the idea is slowly gaining traction as laws are loosened places as far apart as Uruguay, California and Portugal. We spend £3bn every year in the battle against illegal drugs but this is small beer against the social cost.
Back in 2008, the Ministry of Justice said there were over 10,000 people in prison for specific drug offences. Added to those who are given non-custodial sentences, this is a huge number of people who are criminalised and so don’t play their full part in society.
It’s easy to believe that these people would not have played any positive role in society because we are fed the concepts of gun totting gangsters or spaced out losers but we’re really talking about fathers, brothers and friends. The impact of a prison sentence or even a criminal record is felt not just on the person unlucky enough to get caught, but on their children, their families, their friends and their communities. If Paul is white and likes to do the occasional line of coke at parties but one day gets caught up in a raid, there’s nothing to say he won’t go on to be a stand up citizen or even just a good dad, later in life. If Paul is black and gets a criminal record for his bad luck his career options will be limited and his social impact will be deflated.
As much as some people might try, we don’t live in bubbles and issues that impact individual communities, eventually impact everybody. The riots of 2011 showed that all members of society have an interest in reducing inequality and improving integration.
Imagine what a boost it would be to Britain if the people currently thrown on the tip were actually encouraged to contribute to and benefit from the country’s wellbeing. Anything that puts bigger barriers between us is socially corrosive and we can’t afford to ignore the fallacy of the war on drugs just for political expediency.
When I was younger being stopped by the police was weekly occurrence. I was never caught with anything illegal and so was never arrested or charged but the taste of those searches lingers even now. I remember humiliation as passersby make snap judgements about you, I remember the impotence of being ordered around by officers who, while often polite, had already decided what sort of person I was, I remember how it made me feel watched and in my own city
These feelings have left their scars and I still have an inbuilt wariness of police officers even though I’m way too old now to draw their suspicions. I would like to think of myself as an asset to the country but the battle to feel as if I truly belong and as though opportunities are for me and not just other people, has been long and arduous.
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Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He has commissioned for the Guardian, Media Diversified, Engage Magazine, Open Mind, Single Step and Voluntary Voice. Before setting up Marmoset, he had a 15-year career as a national newspaper journalist working for The Express, The Independent, The Voice, The Evening Standard and The Sunday Times among others. He is also a trustee for campaign group Race on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics.
- The Numbers in Black And White: Ethnic Disparities In The Policing And Prosecution Of Drug Offences In England And Wales (release.org.uk)
- The Racist War on Drugs (seniorsforademocraticsociety.wordpress.com)
- The War on Drugs, or the War on You? (harnedviews.com)
- Distorted Incentives: The Failure of the War on Drugs and a New Way Forward (bigthink.com)