Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have admitted to using cocaine in the past. Unlike the 22.9% of Black people making up those imprisoned for drug crimes in the UK, the trajectory of their lives has seen nothing but success and their admissions were met with no consequences.
So, what separates them from an individual caught with the same class A drug who faces 7 years in prison and a £7000 fine? Their forgiving and admissible attitudes are suddenly lacking in the politicians’ approach to drug policy and its reform.
As the media dissipates the Black Lives Matter movement six weeks after the death that sparked its global protests, it is paramount that we keep investigating the race disparities permeating society and explore how reform is possible.
With Black people making up 13% of the UK prison population, whilst making up only 3% of the overall population, it is clear that the justice system is rife with racial disparities.
While people are aware of these disparities, they seem reluctant to bring attention to the areas requiring reform. Of all the signs pictured at protests across the world, there have been very few demanding a reform in drug policy.
Why is drug policy relevant to the conversation?
Government statistics reveal that 15% of those incarcerated are bearing sentences for drug related crime. This covers any drug offence from mere possession of a drug, to the supply and distribution of an illegal drug. Of those, the government reported 22.9% of people convicted on drug offences were of Black ethnicity compared to 20.5% which were of white ethnicity. 22.9% translates to over 55,000 Black lives incarcerated for crimes relating to drugs.
Furthermore, in 2019 Black people were 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. A year earlier, an LSE report found that Black people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 times the rate of white people, despite cannabis use being higher among those of white ethnicity.
These statistics do not reflect the 3% of the UK population that is Black, so why is it that Black people are more likely to be convicted of drug crimes?
Through its policies, the government projects an entirely anti-drug stance, dividing drugs into three classes – A, B and C – which determine the severity of the sentence, depending on which drug an individual is caught with.
As aforementioned, both Johnson and Gove admitted using class A drugs. Yet, no fine was paid nor sentence served for such admissions. Instead, they remain stubbornly pro-prohibition of substances that in no way affected their futures.
But, the world wasn’t always anti-drug, its approach to drug policy was significantly altered after President Nixon declared the ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971.
Public enemy number one
Almost 50 years ago, President Nixon began a global campaign of drug prohibition, involving military intervention, with the aim of eradicating drug use. Nixon’s declaration of drugs as ‘public enemy number one’ was followed by the implementation of harsher drug policies in America which resonated globally and the rest of the world followed suit.
This campaign was heavily racially motivated, as the enemy appeared not in the form of pills and powders but rather anti-war left activists and Black people. An interview with the president’s former policy chief in 2016 confirmed:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Nixon’s campaign spread false information about drugs by exaggerating the danger of marijuana and other less harmful narcotics, but did so at the expense of incarcerating the Black people using such drugs.
Ehrlichman further admitted, “did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did”.
The UK’s failed drug policies
Such harmful myths exist today and significantly influence drug policies. Despite the drug being legal in some form in 46 of USA’s 50 states, and Canada being the largest country in the world to fully legalize the drug in 2018, the UK remains rigid in its criminalization of marijuana.
Minor progress was made in 2018 when the government legalised medicinal use of cannabis; however, full decriminalization of the drug would alleviate stresses on the country’s justice system and significantly reduce the number of Black people in prison on drug charges.
David Nutt, the former government drug advisor, was sacked in 2009 following his statements that LSD, heroin and cannabis were less dangerous than alcohol. Former university professor of Psychopharmacology, his claims, despite being supported by years of evidence and research, were harmful to the world’s outdated prohibition of drugs.
In January, Nutt stated, “UK drug policy has done nothing but go backwards. We are currently in a worse position now than we were 10 years ago”. He acknowledges that in a country where annually, 80,000 people die of a tobacco-related death, 28,000 die of alcohol-related death and opiates, such as heroin, kill about 2,000 people, there is an undeniable failure in drug policy.
Being convicted for drug possession bears more than a reputation or a stereotype – it carries the heavy weight of a criminal record and a difficulty to gain employment and integrate into a society after release.
Drug policy requires radical challenging and reformation to change Black lives behind the 22.9% which are unfairly affected by an action that warrants no such consequence in other areas of the world.
For Black lives to matter drug reform has to matter.