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Rolling Back the War on Drugs

Harry Wise, BA Politics

Let me start with a confession: I’ve taken drugs. “Ooh! How could you?” scream the anti-drugs czars! “Do you know the harm you are doing to your body? You could go crazy.”

Interestingly, British police forces are starting to care a lot less about my drug habits. A recent FOI request by the Guardian has revealed that cannabis offences are down by a third in the last four years. This is partly as a result of police budget cuts and a reduced use of stop and search. One police force, Durham, has, de facto, decriminalised cannabis use altogether.

The UK police seem to be starting to go the way of Uruguay, Colorado and Portugal on drug policy. A leaked Treasury report last week found that we could gain a total of £800m a year just by legalising cannabis.

Legalising cannabis and other drugs would have one particular benefit that even trumps getting high while listening to the new Bloc Party record. And that is that it would go a long way to redressing racial injustices within our criminal justice system.

BME groups experience a disproportionate level of stop and search by the police, even though many studies show that they use fewer drugs than white people. A few years ago, the charity Release wrote a report which showed that in London, you were two and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched if you were Asian and six times more likely to if you were black.

Now why is this? One British youth worker interviewed in that same report said it was because “police stop people on their gut instinct, their gut instinct is racist even if they don’t realise it themselves.” Certainly, racism plays a huge part in the war on drugs, and although Britain doesn’t lock up criminals the way America does, the same rates of disparity in drug arrests still apply.

The War on Drugs has the effect of marginalising not just poor communities, but communities of colour. They are more likely to distrust the police and are more vulnerable as a consequence.

A culture of targets is another problem. Policemen are encouraged to police minor, easily detectable crime like cannabis possession, in order to hit certain targets. To do this, they go to areas where young people congregate and often stop people looking for cannabis.

It’s very easy to find someone with cannabis and it takes little time to issue and process a cannabis warning, usually no more than an hour. As a former New York Police Commissioner once said: “Conspicuous drug use is generally in your low-income neighbourhoods that generally turn out to be your minority neighbourhoods . . . The end result is that more blacks are arrested than whites because of the relative ease in making those arrests.”

Repealing the draconian drug laws in this country would go a long way to helping racial injustices in Britain. Rolling back on stop and search and drug arrests could repair relationships between the police and minority communities. The police would be able to focus on more consequential crimes. Society would be a lot richer and cohesive as a result. It’s not the idea of getting high regularly that makes decriminalisation the right choice, instead it’s one of justice.

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