Race must be central to the drug policy conversation.

by Nicole Borgers


Despite the progress made in 2020, race is still a topic a lot of people in the UK feel uncomfortable talking about; the conversation around drug policy is no exception. Racial injustice permeates through the entirety of the effects and influences drug policies have on our society. From the motivations behind the war on drugs and the burden of the harms caused by criminalisation, to the double stigma faced by many BAME people who use drugs and the role psychoactive substances play in traditional indigenous practices; race clearly can’t be ignored.  This article takes a look at why race and racial injustice need to be a central part of the conversation around drug policy and why it acts as one of the most compelling arguments for reform.

A glance at the racist origins of the global drug control regime

The global drug control regime was, fundamentally, built upon colonial interests and racist ideologies. This is clear even from the earliest steps towards drug prohibition. The first international drug control treaties were made mainly with the goal of serving the interests of colonial powers who controlled profitable monopolies on the trade of substances including opium, coca and cannabis in their overseas territories. Whilst questions surrounding the medical harms and applications of some substances were considered, these were side-lined as there was insufficient medical expertise at the meetings, the vast majority of attendees being diplomats and civil servants.

The resulting international prohibitionist regime controlled and criminalised many widely used psychoactive substances, many of which were integral to cultural, spiritual and medicinal practices across the world, only tolerating these customs if they could profit from them. After decolonisation, newly independent countries were unable to fight back against the prohibitionist rhetoric being pushed by relatively more powerful nations. It is no surprise, therefore, that alcohol and tobacco escaped long-term criminalisation by the leading international drug control treaties; these were the most culturally accepted in the home countries of the main negotiators attending the conventions, the majority of whom were white men from Western nations. 

Racial prejudice also hugely contributed to spreading perceptions of drug use as a deviant, immoral and harmful act. Negative perceptions of drug use and negative perceptions of minority groups have intentionally been tied together since the inception of punitive drug policies. This ranges from the association of opium use with the immorality of Chinese immigrants in Europe in the early 20th century, to the racist rhetoric used in the campaign to justify cannabis prohibition in the US in the 1930s. Harry Ainslinger, then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, spearheaded the campaign to keep his department alive after the prohibition of alcohol began to deteriorate. His tactics included blaming cannabis for the satanic music’ of ethnic minorities and the desire of white women to ‘seek sexual relations with negroes. He even intentionally popularised the word marijuana itself—after the Spanish term ‘marihuana’—in order to associate cannabis with Mexican immigrants. 

To fast forward a few decades to the official inception of the war on drugs by the Nixon administration in 1971, the role of racism was no less important. Nixon’s senior advisor John Ehrlichman even admitted that it was never about the drugs. Instead, one of the motivations behind it stemmed from the idea that associating black people with drug use—specifically, heroin—meant they could essentially criminalise being black, allowing law enforcement to ‘arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news’. Although racism was not the only motivation behind the war on drugs, it played a disturbingly large role nonetheless. 

America’s harsh and racist approach to drug prohibition had an impact on a global scale, including here in the UK. This is not, necessarily, to say that the UK’s drug policies are consciously racist by design. However, considering that the Misuse of Drugs Act has not been amended since its implementation 50 years ago in 1971, the very same year as Nixon declared the war on drugs, it does beg the question: what sort of legacy is the UK government choosing to perpetuate by not altering legislation that has racism built into it at its core? Ultimately, by acknowledging the way that racist and colonial interests were a central part of the prohibitionist policies and ideologies we have today, arguments to sustain them become more precarious. 

Racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system

Perhaps the most apparent point at which drug policy and racism intersect is in its enforcement; drug policy is one of the clearest means through which racial injustice is enacted and legitimized. Spokespeople from the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent stated that ‘the pretext of fighting the world’s drug problem has been used to justify excessive surveillance, criminalisation and the targeting of people of African descent worldwide’. 

The US is an obvious example of this as the drug war’s contribution to the mass incarceration of African Americans has led to many labelling it as “The New Jim Crow”. However, the UK has its own serious issue of racial injustice in drug policing. Earlier this year, Lord Woolley, former chair of the Government’s Race Disparity Unit, said that the Misuse of Drugs Act continues to be used ‘as a tool of systemic racism’ and that the UK’s laws on drugs are “one of the most tangible and damaging means through which systemic racism is experienced in black communities“. 

The statistics back this up to an appalling extent. Keeping in mind that the majority of stop and searches are for drug possession, BAME people in England and Wales in 2019-20 were 4.1 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, with the figure soaring to 8.9 for those identifying as Black and Black British; this is despite BAME people being no more likely to use drugs.  These disparities persist when it comes to prosecution, conviction and sentencing; according to a Release report, Black people in England and Wales were prosecuted for drug offences at more than 8 times the rate of White people in 2017 and convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 times the rate of white people. 

Of course, this issue is by no means exclusive to drug offences. From the 1999 MacPherson report, where it was first officially recognised, to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, the fact that the UK’s criminal justice system is institutionally racist is not news. However, prohibitionist drug policy, in particular, is a key driver of racial disproportionality. For context, for all indictable offences in England and Wales in the year 2017, Black people were only four times more likely to be prosecuted than White people, compared to 8.9 times more likely for drug offences. In fact, approximately a third of prosecution and convictions of Black people in 2018 were drug-related, with roughly half of these being attributed to possession of Class B drug offences. 

A key point to emphasise here is that even if drug policy was completely race-neutral—which it isn’t—the existence of institutional racism in the criminal justice system inevitably leads to racial disproportionality in how these policies are enforced. This is not necessarily to say that today’s lawmakers and the police are consciously racist in their actions. Rather, the combination of institutional racism and unconscious biases do not mix well with a set of anti-drug legislation and ideologies with inbuilt racial prejudice. Unfortunately, fixing this problem can’t rely solely on eliminating institutional racism as, despite progress in recent years, this fight has been ongoing since the inception of racial justice movements. Instead, more immediate change will only come about if the policies which legitimize racial injustice are amended; the fight for drug policy reform is a central part of the fight against racism and vice versa. 

Barriers to effective treatment and support

Even moving away from the topic of criminal justice, race is still important to consider when it comes to harm reduction. For a start, uptake, engagement and completion of drug and alcohol recovery services are low among BAME people. This is not due to resistance or naivety towards treatment, rather, there are well documented systemic issues when it comes to health services’ treatment of BAME people. These include institutional racism in the health service, cultural insensitivity, language barriers, wider structural barriers to access and distrust of services due to negative past experiences. On top of this, there’s the additional issue of stigma when it comes to drug treatment; some BAME communities have cultural taboos around substance use, leading people suffering from addiction to avoid openly seeking treatment to avoid stigma and alienation. 

This stigma can also come from service providers; one study found that some Black people who used drugs felt they carried a double stigma, which would reduce their willingness to access treatment as they felt their struggles wouldn’t be taken seriously or would feed negative racial stereotypes.  Additionally, local and national commissioning arrangements often underestimate the need for treatment among BAME communities and fail to engage with them to design and deliver culturally appropriate services. 

More research is needed into the barriers to BAME people accessing and engaging with drug treatment, but facing how race impacts harm reduction and treatment efforts is crucial. This is even more true considering how a lack of support leaves people more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system, an outcome which can be especially detrimental to BAME people.

Diversity and representation in the drug policy space

Properly addressing the issues at the intersection of race and drug policy is going to be an ongoing journey for this field. A good place to start, however, is by listening to and amplifying BAME voices in the conversation, something that is significantly lacking at the moment. From scientists and policy experts, to advocates and people who use drugs, the mainstream narrative pushing for drug reform is currently centred around white voices and experiences—of course, this is by no means to discount the fantastic work they have done. The factors behind this are manifold, but the societal and individual biases influencing which voices are seen as legitimate undoubtedly play a role, even if they are subconscious. On top of this, there is an additional stigma and fear of stereotyping that comes with speaking out about drugs as a BAME person in Britain.

Furthermore, even though the marginalisation of BAME voices is not exclusive to the drug policy conversation, it does seem especially ironic considering the context. Not only has the burden of criminalisation fallen disproportionately on BAME people, but the use of psychoactive substances such as cannabis and psilocybin for healing and other traditional practices is also rooted in communities of colour. Therefore, when we talk about drug policy and the potential benefits of currently illicit drugs, the people that are most harmed by the former and most historically connected to the latter do not have enough seats at the table.  This is not simply about improving representation for the sake of fairness, it’s about widening the range of voices in the drug policy space and recognising how an enormous number of valuable ideas, perspectives, insights and individuals are currently missing from the conversation. 

Overall, placing race as a central topic in the drug policy conversation is not only necessary, but it also makes sure that we don’t minimize a key argument behind drug policy reform: a society committed to anti-racism cannot continue to leave unchanged a set of policies that allow—and have historically encouraged—racial discrimination and injustice to be perpetuated on such a large scale. Of course, this article only scratches the surface of the important ways in which race and drug policy intersect, let alone the ways that we can work towards potential solutions and reparations. One thing that’s certain is that efforts need to be collaborative, starting with a commitment to keep opening up conversations about race and racial injustice in the drug policy sphere and committing to doing the work to address personal and institutional biases. Race is a topic that the UK is notoriously uncomfortable talking about, but drug policy is certainly not an arena where we can afford to shy away from the topic considering that racial injustice is sewn into the foundations, implementation and impacts of UK drug policy. 

This piece was written by Research Officer Nicole Borgers. Tweets @NicoleBorgers

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