The impact of punitive drug policy on young people and their drug use

Will increased police powers help tackle drug use amongst youth, or continue to lose the trust of ethnic minorities in the justice system?

by Nick Birko-Dolder

Amidst the evolving landscape of drug policy in the UK, an important debate is emerging. An upcoming report from First Wednesdays, Europe’s largest community of entrepreneurs and investors in the cannabis sector, casts light on the systemic, deep-rooted issue of social injustice for ethnic minority communities when the personal use of recreational cannabis is policed.

Pagefield has been working with Hanway Associates – who specialise in strategy and M&A for the cannabis sector – focussing on composing messaging for businesses and promoting campaigns to increase patient access to medical cannabis, in the wake of it being legalised for medical use in 2018. 

As a communications agency, concerned daily with how the political system grapples with changing economic trends, consumer habits, and wider geopolitical issues, we are concerned that the report has serious implications for the general policing of cannabis in the UK, as more individuals continue to access cannabis for medicinal purposes. 

Specifically, data collected from the Children’s Commissioner for England highlights an unsettling imbalance in the protocol for strip-searching children in the UK – with the Commissioner detailing a ‘pronounced and deeply concerning ethnic disproportionality’ in current stop and search protocol. This is clearly reflected in the data, which notes that black children in England and Wales are six times more likely to be strip searched when compared to national population figures. 

Peering deeper, we can begin to scrutinise the correlation between these searches and subsequent arrests. Home Office records from 2021-22 reveal that out of 94,975 children subjected to police stops and searches, 50,787 aged 10 to 17 faced arrest – tipping the scale just beyond the halfway mark.

On paper then, stop and search measures might seem like an effective deterrent in keeping kids away from drugs and out of trouble. But when we look at the ramifications felt by the almost 50% of children found not to be in possession of a controlled substance, the picture is far less positive. These young people expressed they suffered trauma and subsequently expressed negative attitudes towards the criminal justice system – with cases like that of ‘Child Q’, who was forcefully strip searched in a school in London back in 2020 showing the level of how distressing these searches can be for young people, falsely accused.

Only 36% of black children have a sense of trust in the police, compared to 75% of white youngsters. This statistic has no doubt been influenced further by the peripheral atrocities committed by the police globally against ethnic minority communities, whether this be the murder of George Floyd in the USA, or the fatal shooting of Chris Kaba in the UK. However, much of this mistrust is prompted by the disproportionate treatment meted out to black and ethnic minority communities more generally by the police – with data from the Children’s Commissioner indicating that more than half of those children arrested (52%) were strip searched without an appropriate adult present. 

It is important to note that in 2022 the Government announced its intention to further expand the power of police to carry out suspicion-less stop and searches in relation to protest activity – outlined in the proposed Public Order Act 2023. We can only hope that this widening of the scope doesn’t bring a wider scope of discrimination with it. 

In addition, the Government’s newly proposed strategy to tackle antisocial behaviour, and, as described by the Prime Minister himself, ‘make our streets safer and invest in communities the length and breadth of the UK’, leaves room for further concerns. 

Under the newly proposed Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, the Government has expanded the police’s ability to test individuals for use of a broader range of drugs and has doubled down on its prohibitive stance towards drug use – continuing to criminalise ethnic minority youth using drugs, rather than refer these vulnerable people into healthcare services. Unhelpfully, those pushing for the legislation tend to deem those engaged in antisocial behaviour as ‘gangs of teenagers’. 

The urgency for change is amplified further by the most recent ONS data on drug use, which shows that one in five individuals in the UK, aged 16 to 24 years-old, were reported to have used controlled substances in the year ending June 2022 – the same rate as the previous year. The issue of young people using drugs is therefore far from disappearing. 

The challenge persists: punitive measures addressing personal drug use, combined with a lack of data being captured to effectively demonstrate the success of rehabilitation outcomes and a reduction in drug use more generally, continue to fail. Perhaps it is time that the Government looked more towards methods aimed at reducing harms to individuals rather than imposing more harms upon them. 

This piece was written by Nick Birko-Dolder, Senior Executive at Pagefield.

To sign up to receive a copy of the upcoming Social Justice and Equity Report from First Wednesdays, please email .

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