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The causes and effects of racial disproportionality in drug law enforcement

In response to a report published on 22 August by the drugs charity Release, showing the continuing disproportionality in the policing of drug laws, Professor Alex Stevens comments on the potential explanations for why members of black and minority ethnic communities face a greater risk of being stopped, charged and prosecuted for drug offences. He says:

‘In 2009/10, black people were 6 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched for drugs. In London, black people were charged with cannabis offences at five times the rate of white people. And 78 per cent of people caught in possession of cocaine were charged, compared to 44 per cent of white people.

‘The obvious assumption to be drawn from this is that black people use drugs more than white people. But this assumption is challenged by the available data. The Crime Survey for England and Wales shows higher rates of drug use among white people than black people. So what does explain the disparity?

‘Does it show that the police are directly racist in their application of drug laws? Not necessarily. As I showed in my book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health (Routledge, 2011) there are several other potential explanations. These include the concentration of police resources on less wealthy areas of British cities. Due to the economic position of black people, they tend to be over-represented in these areas. The police tend to focus on drug offences on the urban streets, not in the corporate suites where many drug users could also be found. Cocaine traces have, after all, been repeatedly found in the toilets of the Houses of Parliament.

‘Police resources are targeted geographically on poorer areas. They are also targeted on poorer drug users. My current analysis of data from the Global Drug Survey suggests that people who use drugs are more likely to have been stopped by the police if they have lower incomes. Earlier analysis of the Offending Crime and Justice Survey showed that being unemployed was associated with being contacted by the police, no matter the frequency of offending. As over half of young black men are unemployed, low income and unemployment may both disproportionately affect their risks of police contact. Ethnic discrimination in the labour market may be as important as institutional discrimination by the police in explaining inequalities in drug law enforcement.

‘These broader explanations do not absolve police services of the responsibility to address disproportionality in their policing of drug laws. We know from several criminological studies that young people who have adversarial contact with the police are more likely to offend in future, regardless of their current level of offending. The high rate of stop and searches for drugs, the vast majority of which do not find drugs, is damaging the life chances of thousands of young black people.

‘Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the legislators who make the drug laws. They should know by now that treating possession of small quantities of drugs as a criminal offence is not necessary or effective in reducing drug related harms. This new report gives them even more cause to consider the harm that criminalisation does.’

Alex Stevens is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR). He is also Deputy Head of SSPSSR at the University’s Medway campus.


Story published at 10:39am 22 August 2013

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Last Updated: 12/06/2013