The Uncounted Victims of the War on Drugs
By Mame Bougouma Diene & Simon Woolley
“Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”
It’s time for a grown-up conversation about the racialization of antidrug policies. Ethnic and racial minorities are incarcerated, policed, shot, and killed at growing rates across the globe. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent called for drug laws to be amended in light of racial injustice. The reasons for this injustice are not rooted in any problem with these communities, but rather because of problems with the criminal justice systems that disproportionately punish them. Indeed, the war on drugs was designed specifically for this purpose.
The first step in trying to address this challenge is for countries to collect data on drug crimes; tracking data (on race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, etc.) of those arrested and prosecuted for such offenses is particularly needed. Lax data collection can have serious pitfalls, and distort our understanding of what’s actually happening in countries in ways that carry problematic consequences.
Consider the case of Portugal, a country lauded for leading the world in progressive drug policy reform. As a 2016 study shows, there is a sharp difference between the number of men and women incarcerated on drug offenses in Portugal; women made up 76 percent of the total number of people imprisoned on drug offenses, while men accounted for 40 percent. To put those figures in context, the disparity between women and men in 2005 was 60 percent to 25 percent; in 2000, it was 47 percent to 19 percent.
Why had the number of women incarcerated on drug charges climbed so high?
The study looked into this and showed that the increase was partially driven by the number of foreign nationals incarcerated on drug-related charges, which rose from 11 percent in 2000 to 32 percent by 2009. While many of these women are detained for carrying drugs into the country, a number of them are foreign nationals residing in Portugal with no legal status. Many were welcomed to the country from former Portuguese colonies in a movement of populations reminiscent of the Windrush generation in the United Kingdom. Women from Cape Verde, for example, tend to speak Cape Verdean Creole, and may not be able to communicate with the Portuguese-speaking majority in their new country, resulting in social exclusion. Struggling to support themselves through legal employment, some turn to micro-trafficking in an attempt to generate a quick supply of cash.
Portugal is hardly the only country that fails to collect data on race and ethnicity; data collection is lax in France and Canada, too. While this is problematic everywhere it occurs, it is particularly damaging in former colonial powers that contend with a significant influx of immigrants.
For centuries, colonial forces used racial and ethnic differences to place people in a hierarchical order subjugated to white supremacy. Many of these same countries now naively believe that their socioeconomic problems will go away if they just pretend these divisions still don’t exist. Keeping track of them through rigorous data collection is an important step toward addressing current socioeconomic problems rooted in the colonial past, and moving collectively forward as a people.
Detailed data collection can also help dispel myths in historically colonial powers. For example: The United States often carries the blame for leading the pack in incarcerating minorities, but in a surprising twist it appears that the United Kingdom arrests Black youth at even higher rates than the United States.
According to a 2017 study by Release, 9 percent of whites admitted to having consumed illicit substances as opposed to five percent of Blacks. Yet Black people in the United Kingdom are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped and frisked for drugs, and 14 times more likely to be arrested and end up in the criminal justice system.
Recently, The Guardian revealed that those disparities have lately grown much worse, and not just for drug searches. Section 60 searches are all searches that are carried out without the need to establish reasonable suspicion. In the year leading to March 2018, Black people in England and Wales excluding London were 26 times more likely to be stopped; in the previous 12 months, they were just six times more likely to be stopped. In London, Black people were 12 times more likely to be stopped, compared with four times the previous year. Combined figures for England and Wales show Black people were 40 times more likely to be stopped, up from 14 times in 2017.
Sajid Javid, then British home secretary, implemented Section 60 making it easier for officers to search anyone in an area if serious violence is anticipated. The way officers interpreted this policy suggests that they believe young Black males were more likely to commit acts of violence than other groups. This policy was reinforced by new Home Secretary Priti Patel who in addition to relaxing stop and search best practices has also indicated a zero tolerance for cannabis possession. A double burden on Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities already unfairly stigmatized for violence and drugs.
There are many possible explanations for why these disparities occur. What’s critical is how we know about them: because someone is counting.
Western societies stand by principles of egalitarianism, of illuminated values, openness, and the rule of law. Moving beyond these principles towards truly just societies requires soul-searching, and data collection to facilitate honest self-appraisal. Realizing where we have gone wrong collectively is the first step toward addressing those wrongs.
We can’t do this if we don’t understand the extent of the problem due to lack of data, and then fail to grapple with and fix glaring injustices. Every person counts, and every person should be counted—as they are, not how we wish them to be.
Until September 2022, Mame Diene was the Africa program officer for the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program.
Simon Woolley is a member of the Global Drug Policy Program Advisory Board and the Roma Programs Advisory Board.