Campaigners demand reform as official figures show one in five found guilty of cannabis possession is black

Warning of link between convictions and police stop-and-search policy

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Monday 03 August 2020 00:31
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'Illegal' sculpture of Black Lives Matter protester removed from Colston plinth

One in five of those found guilty of cannabis possession in England and Wales last year was black, official figures show, prompting accusations of racial injustice at the heart of the UK’s drug laws.

Campaigners said the rate was grossly disproportionate when only an estimated 3 per cent of the population is black.

They also warned of a link between the convictions and the police stop and search policy, a central concern during the Black Lives Matter protests.

The latest figures, obtained from the Ministry of Justice, show one in five, 21 per cent, of those convicted in 2018-19 was black.

But the true figure could be even higher, because in 23 per cent of cases data on ethnicity was not recorded.

Nearly one in 10, 8.2 per cent, of those found guilty were Asian, while 42 per cent were listed as white, according to the data.

Official statistics, based on the last census, estimate that only around 3 per cent of the population in England and Wales is black, while 8 per cent is Asian.

Experts warn black people are nine times as likely to be stopped and searched for drugs as their white counterparts.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, an independent charity which campaigns on drugs and drugs law, said: “Unfortunately, these shocking figures are unsurprising. Our drug laws are being used as an excuse for police officers to target young black men in particular, with the ‘smell of cannabis’ being routinely used as a ground for a search.”

She added: “The drug laws are not only outdated but they allow for racial harassment by law enforcement and it is high time we reformed these laws by ending criminal sanctions for possession.”

She said: “Under lockdown we repeatedly saw videos on social media of the police harassing young black men, and Release received reports of black people being targeted by officers, with drugs often being the basis for a search.

“In London, the Met Police managed to carry out nearly 44,000 searches in May 2020, the highest monthly figure since January 2012, 60 per cent of these were for drugs, and we know that this will largely be driven by cannabis possession. The drug laws are not only outdated but they allow for racial harassment by law enforcement and it is high time we reformed these laws by ending criminal sanctions for possession.”

Liberal Democrat leadership contender Layla Moran, who obtained the figures, said: “These figures expose the glaring racial injustice at the heart of the UK’s outdated drug laws.

“Black people make up less than four per cent of the population but account for one-fifth of those being convicted of cannabis possession. This is no doubt linked to the disproportionate use of stop and search against those from a black or ethnic minority background.

“The Black Lives Matter protests have shown the urgent need to tackle racial inequalities and discrimination in all their forms. That must include a full review of the UK’s drug laws to ensure those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are not unfairly discriminated against.”

In June, Britain’s police leaders said they were drawing up a “plan of action” to address racial inequalities in the UK’s criminal justice system, in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the US.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said one of the areas it wanted to address was concern over stop and search.

When she was appointed home secretary last year Priti Patel took a tough stance on drugs, saying cannabis users should not be overlooked by police.

Last week figures obtained by Ms Moran showed that black pupils were disproportionately affected by fixed-term exclusions from schools in England.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling racial disparities in the justice system, from charging to rehabilitation.

“No one should be targeted because of their race, which is why we collect and publish more data on stop-and-search disparities than ever before to hold police forces to account.”

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