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Carceral, classist, racist: the UK’s latest strategy for punishing people who use drugs

The government is proposing drug policies that further entrench racism and classism within the criminal justice system.

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09 Feb 2023

British drug policies have long been considered a failure to anyone concerned with the health and dignity of people who use drugs. While countries like Portugal and states in the US are liberalising their drug policies, the UK is taking the opposite stance, opting for further criminalisation in their latest White Paper on the issue

We know these draconian approaches are harmful as the criminalisation of drug use has been proven to increase health and social harms, but they don’t affect all people who use drugs equally. Drug laws are a vehicle for oppression.

Some people – often wealthy and white – will never come into contact with the criminal justice system as a consequence of their drug use, nor experience the full spectrum of possible health harms. Whereas working-class people and people of colour are more likely to experience harm or come into contact with the criminal justice system regardless of their current drug use. For instance, people in deprived areas are six times more likely to die from drug-related harms. And in 2017, Black and Asian people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 and 2.4 times the rate of white people despite their lower rates of self-reported cannabis use. These differences in outcomes are not random, but structured by white supremacy and classism.

These oppressive forces which contour the daily lives of people who use drugs are not independent from one another, either. All capitalism is racial capitalism: poverty and its symptoms – from poor working conditions, lack of economic opportunity, absence of social safety nets, to the current cost of living crisis – are inseparable from white supremacy and the tools that maintain it. 

“Working-class people and people of colour are more likely to experience harm regardless of their current drug use”

This is demonstrated by the growth of policing powers in the UK, made worse in the government’s Public Order Bill (proposals that were rejected on Monday in the House of Lords), which expands the use of stop and search – a surveillance practice used against Black British people, other people of colour and those from poor backgrounds. 

There are many examples of drug laws producing racial disparities in criminal justice, ranging from stop and searches to arrests and incarceration. For instance, Black people are subjected to stop and search at more than nine times the rate of white people. And in 2016-2017, more than two thirds of all stop and searches were for drugs – even though Black people in the UK are less likely to use controlled substances, and less likely to be found possessing drugs after being subjected to a stop and search. 

Drug laws produce harm, not only for people who use drugs, but the entire communities that encounter those laws, regardless of their actual drug use. People in these communities have, by virtue of their skin colour or class, been pre-determined as guilty of criminality, with heightened surveillance deemed necessary to control these populations.

The government’s White Paper, ‘Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession’, presented to parliament in July 2022, echoes this damaging and increasingly carceral approach, proposing a range of new punishments for drug possession in the UK. 

On its face, the recommendations might appear marginally more progressive by emphasising “tough… but fair and meaningful” consequences to recreational drug use, proposing ‘drug awareness courses’ as punishment for first or second-time drug possession offences. Failure to attend the courses triggers a fine, meaning those who can afford to pay off the police will avoid any further contact with law enforcement. Although framed as a first attempt to promote behavioural change, this fine will likely produce harm against economically marginalised people, which frequently includes racialised people in the UK. 

“People in these communities have, by virtue of their skin colour or class, been pre-determined as guilty of criminality”

When unable to pay, these groups will face escalating punishment. As part of a three-tier system, second and third-time offences include confiscating driving licences and passports, banning orders from events and venues, and drug tagging. 

“Mandatory payments for drugs awareness courses, fines for non-attendance, and other sanctions will disproportionately impact those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds and exacerbate inequalities,” said Dr. Adam Holland, chair of the Faculty of Public Health’s Drugs Special Interest Group in an open letter condemning the White Paper’s proposals. It is clear that the expansion of policing goes hand in hand with the restriction of liberties. 

This is yet another concerning development in the evolution of British carceral policies, whereby a veneer of progressiveness or fairness is used to obscure the state’s reproduction of racism and classism. The inclusion of “evidence building” as a principle in the paper itself is simply a flashy way of refusing to engage in the massive and ever-growing body of literature which details how to reduce drug-related harm, and the ways that punishment is antithetical to that aim. 

Rather than addressing drug-related harms, the Home Office is pursuing yet another set of carceral tools grounded in the demonisation of people who use drugs, while ignoring evidence from those working most closely with those same people. These proposals will exacerbate harms rather than address them if implemented, and deepen the disproportionate impact of drug laws on people living in poverty and on people of colour. Policing tactics like stop and search are also increasing. These policies not only impact people who use drugs, but also their entire communities, as well as many more who experience the brunt of violent drug policing. 

Although the consultation window has now closed, you can support the open letter opposing this White Paper. Follow its status as well as any drug policy news by following drugs experts such as Release, Talking Drugs and Transform, as well as justice organisations Unjust UK, Liberty and Transform Justice

Shayla Schlossenberg is the drugs service coordinator at Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law.

Praveena K. Fernes is a PhD student and public health researcher based in London.