Misuse of drugs or misuse of policing?

Carrie Hamilton of the Green Party’s Drug Policy Working Group and Hackney Greens outlines the main messages of the ‘Social Justice and Policing of Drugs’ event that took place last week, with Cleo Lake and Neil Woods.

Policing of drugs

© Graham Bedingfield, West Midlands Police (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Carrie Hamilton

“The policing of drugs not only destroys our most vulnerable communities, it destroys our security and our democracy” – Neil Woods

If we want to get to the bottom of the most entrenched inequalities in Britain today, we might start with policing and drugs. As drug reform activist Neil Woods puts it, “The UK’s punitive drug policy is a fundamental breach of all of [police pioneer Robert] Peel’s principles. It changed what policing is and should be.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the Green Party Drug Policy Working Group invited Woods and former Bristol Green Councillor Cleo Lake to look back over 50 years of the Act, reflecting on what’s gone wrong and how we can change it. 

In his own words, Woods ‘used to catch drug dealers for a living’ as an undercover police officer. While such work is portrayed on TV as glamorous and exciting, for Woods it meant ‘going into the most deprived areas of a city and picking on vulnerable people’. After a few years he realised he was causing emotional damage to the very people he was meant to be helping. Today Woods chairs LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership) and educates the public on drugs and policing. 

Lake was born and raised in Bristol. Most recently she ran for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset, ‘coming a decent third with what some people have termed rightly or wrongly a woke agenda’, championing institutional reform, racial justice and a harm-reduction approach to policing drugs. 

Targeting the vulnerable and keeping criminal gangs in business

The tragic paradox of what Woods calls the ‘ruthless’ approach to policing drugs is that it damages marginalised communities while keeping criminals in business. Even major drug busts only interrupt supply for a few hours. As Woods explains: “Policing activity like that never reduces crime. It increases crime, because the competition over that gap in the market creates more violence. And no one feels that more than people in poorer communities in our inner cities.” By posting images on social media of drug raids, mug shots of (usually non-white) detainees and seized drugs the police reinforce the public’s fear of drugs while sending the false message that they are making things better. 

Political opponents of drug policy reform claim that a regulated market would force gangs into other kinds of organised crime. But Woods says this misrepresents how crime works. Removing one criminal opportunity doesn’t create a series of others, because crime is caused by opportunity not by criminals. ‘You would not get rid of drug dealing gangs with just decriminalisation. Only by taking control of the drug markets and regulating them do you significantly reduce the illicit market.’

‘Racism is in the DNA of drug policy’

How did we get into this mess? For Woods, the roots go right back to the 1971 Act, which gave police a ‘war chest of powers’ to harass and arrest people suspected of using or dealing drugs. In practice this meant aggressively targeting Black communities. Punitive drug policy is at the centre of institutionalised racism in the police and other public bodies. 

Lake witnessed the racist fallout of the Misuse of Drugs Act first hand as a young Black woman growing up in Bristol. She saw how her Jamaican-born father had to hustle to make a legitimate living while young men in her community fell afoul of Sus laws and later Stop and Search. Her recent PCC campaign, like Sian Berry’s May London Mayoral campaign, included a commitment to deprioritising Stop and Search for suspected cannabis possession, a practice that disproportionately impacts young people of colour. 

Replacing prohibition with regulation would also protect people caught up in the heroin business, whether problematic users or young suppliers working. Woods supports the implementation of Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT), used successfully in Switzerland and elsewhere: “I believe you could almost entirely get rid of the issue of children being exploited on County Lines by treating problematic heroin users with care and love.” 

‘Repairing the damage from a deadly system’

The Green Party’s short-term Drug Policy promotes steps like deprioritising cannabis policing and HAT which can be implemented within the existing legal framework. In 2018, Lake and other Green Councillors put a motion to Bristol Council to establish HAT along with a Safe Consumption Room. Other measures local activists and councillors can promote include drug testing at clubs and festivals and supporting cannabis social clubs. 

When asked how we can respond to accusations that Greens are ‘soft on drugs’, Lake stresses: “It can’t be a one-word answer. Being on the doorstep is about having that dialogue and meeting people where they are. Don’t be too pushy but have some statistics up your sleeve. Get back to our humanity, reimagine our world the way it should be.” 

The Green Party of England and Wales is at the vanguard of drug reform in the UK. We’re the only party with a policy for the full decriminalisation and regulation of all drugs. According to Woods: “Successive governments from the two main parties have allowed organised crime to become incredibly powerful; they now threaten our institutions.” Our drug policy not only distinguishes the Green Party from other parties on a key social justice issue; it is integral to our commitment to a just Green future.