Decriminalize

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

By Sean Buckley

Media coverage of Black Lives Matter protests appears to be subsiding. The focus on the violence occuring at a fraction of the events held globally indicates a mainstream political inability to communicate in a medium other than burning corporate property. Damage that violent depiction can do in the media is immediately being felt in the reactionary responses turning out virulently both here and in the US. Far right organizations used this portrayal of BLM as violent thugs to justify their own events, obliviously throwing nazi salutes while defending a statue of Churchill. 

Though the news cycle has apparently moved on to some degree a search continues for real legislative action that can be taken against racial discrimination, the inherent nuance of which is perhaps more difficult to sensationalize. U.S police forces are so ludicrously overfunded and imbued with such a degree of demonic power that the case for defunding and more intense regulation is a relatively simple one to rally around. Altering the behaviour of the police in the UK, however, is a more complex conversation. A decade of austerity has ensured that the police have already been defunded, whilst also being asked to deal with the spillover from mental health, social and medical services. All of which have been brought to breaking point by an economic policy now widely accepted to have served little purpose beside ideological cruelty. BAME communities are significantly overrepresented in the prison population, indicating that they are often the ones who feel the impact of the police’s increased culpability. An inability to treat societal and health issues as anything other than criminal can be quantifiably proven to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, especially black individuals. Necessity, if not human decency, may force us to reorientate policy towards depressurising law enforcement, placing it as part of a full roster of social services rather than the singular measure to combat all the ills of British society. A significant piece of real legislative change, the impact of which would be immediately felt, would be the decriminalization of drugs in the UK. 

Drug policy has historically been racially biased, if not outright discriminatory. Cannabis and cocaine were made illegal in 1920, mostly in defence of the cotton industry which was threatened by hemp at the time. The legislation to further criminalize medical use and cultivation of cannabis didn’t arrive until the 1960/70’s, when the issue of civil rights had come to the forefront of political discourse. In the modern day, stop and search statistics in the UK show that black individuals were stopped at 9.5 times the rate of white individuals from 2018-19 despite having lower self-reported use rates than white populations. Incarceration statistics show that black people are far more likely to face arrest over being given a warning, and receive harsher sentences once arrested. While it might seem a cop out (pun intended) to remove the issue from the hands of law enforcement rather than place responsibility on those institutions to root out the discrimination that plagues them, the desired effect should be (and it feels odd to have to state this)  the improvement of the lives affected by the issue. 

The use of drug policy as a tool for subjugation also has a deep rooted history in the US, which has historically made the sentences for drugs more popular in black communities much higher than for ones popular in white communities. Disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine is a particularly egregious example. Despite the only chemical difference being baking soda and water, when legislation around crack was introduced the sentence could be up to one hundred times harsher than for powder cocaine. The speed with which the crack epidemic took hold in the states possibly sensationalised it, and reinforced the punitive overreaction. However, had the epidemic taken place in white suburban communities, it isn’t a stretch to assume we would have seen a more enlightened and health-orientated approach that was never even considered for black and minority communities. For instance, the response to the recent opioid epidemic, which appeared to have affected working class white communities the most, was not met with anything resembling the same degree of criminalization and disregard for public health. Oklahoma recently achieved the unthinkable and won a landmark court battle against one of the primary manufacturers of the substances responsible for devastating their communities. Hopefully this first admission of culpability by a major drug company leads to more accountability for predatory health practices moving forward. 

The narrative perpetuated by American media during the rise of crack cocaine was one that painted the individuals and communities affected by it as monstrous and immoral.  This essentially served to dehumanize them beyond the right to a humanistic response to a public health crisis, and qualify them for a punitive and criminal one. Nancy Reagan, first lady for much of the 1980’s, famously championed the catchphrase ‘Just Say No’. Along with other public entities like the D.A.R.E campaign, the idea was to promote a moralised and entirely ineffective abstinence style argument. Anyone who did not abstain absolutely could obviously be entirely written off as an evil and immoral individual. 

Slightly further down the line, Hillary Clinton started using the term ‘Super Predators’ to depict young black men as irredeemably criminal, and responsible for all the violence in black communities. A large mass media campaign led by the government, with varying degrees of explicit and tacit endorsement from powerful religious affiliations, successfully brought public opinion to the support of racially biased legislation that served no purpose in terms of actual harm reduction. The rapid increase in the amount of prisoners as a result allowed the private industry that traded prisoners as a commodity to expand rapidly. Private prisons, predatory bail firms and a multiplicity of for profit legal organisations were able to profit immensely from the criminalisation of black communities. In a sense, the racist narrative that justified the legislative overreaction to issues affecting majority black communities served to replace the phrenological arguments that sought to justify the ownership of slaves in the country less than 120 years before. While the U.S. has an evident and extreme history surrounding the subjugation of its own minority communities from long before the period mentioned above, the radical and racially biased legislative change during that time is potentially one of the most significant factors leading to the racial divides and tensions seen in the country today.

Criminalization of drugs has proven time and time again to be an ineffective method of harm reduction. Addicts of hard drugs like crack and heroin often find themselves in a cycle of homelessness and imprisonment, with criminalization explicitly preventing the stability required to break the addiction. Especially after 10 years of austerity measures have drained the social and mental health services that use of drugs while imprisoned is also common, making prison a particularly impotent measure for keeping people off them. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs, which amongst other benefits made a significant impact in tackling the country’s AIDS/HIV epidemic amongst drug users. Additionally, the resulting decrease in the prison population eased the strain on a struggling and overworked infrastructure. There is some discussion as to the reliability of statistics from Portugal, as it is hard to factor in elements like economic recession that historically increase drug use. However it is broadly accepted that the decision to decriminalize has had a net positive impact. 

Australia also took a step in this direction by starting injection clinics in areas like central Sydney, providing a safe and supervised location for heroin users to inject. Following in the path of other centres like those in Switzerland and Germany, areas local to injection centres have seen around a 35% decrease in fatal overdoses and a 30% uptick in those seeking rehabilitation. Both decriminalization and the re-orientation towards a health based solution make the case that taking a more educated, health orientated approach will not immediately cause the sky to fall.  

While the American and Portugese responses to narcotics exist in immovably different contexts to ours in the UK they provide two important examples. One a cruel and punitive attempt that inevitably (if not purposefully) affects marginalised communities to a much greater degree, the other a legitimate step towards fighting an issue that should always have been seen as a health, not a criminal, problem. 

British drug policy appears to sit at a crossroads. Cannabis is being treated less and less seriously as a crime across many parts of the country, with several police authorities indicating they will only issue cautions at most to individuals on the street. As mentioned earlier, the direct impact of drug policy on black and other minority communities is blatant in police statistics. The priority of policy should be to ensure the healthiest possible option for those lives affected, rather than enforcing a moralistic and pointlessly punitive approach, especially when those measures have the explicit effect of enforcing systemic racism. The crux of the argument then is not as simple as defunding the police but rather depressurising them. Spreading the load across health and social services and attempt to move forward into a healthier society.  

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