Press Release-Racial disparities in drug policing



A report launched by LSE and Release today shows that drug policing is dominating stop and search, that much of this activity is focused on low level drug possession offences, and that black and Asian people are being disproportionately targeted.  Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release and co-author of the report, states “this research shows that stop and search is not about finding guns or knives but about the police going out and actively looking for people who are in possession of a small amount of drugs, mainly cannabis”.

  • Over 50% of stop and searches are for drugs, 10% are for offensive weapons and less than 1% are for guns .
  • The police in England and Wales stop and search someone for drugs every 58 seconds.
  • Of the more than half million stop and searches for drugs carried out in 2009/10 only 7% resulted in arrest.
  • In 2009/10 there were 10 stop and searches for drugs for every 1,000 people in England and Wales.  Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at 6.3 times the rate of white people, while Asian people were stopped and searched for drugs at 2.5 times the rate and those identifying as mixed race were stopped and searched for drugs at twice the rate of white people. This is despite the fact that drug use is lower amongst  black and Asian people when compared to their white counterparts .
  • Black people are arrested for a drugs offence at 6 times the rate of white people, and Asian people are arrested at almost twice the rate of the white.
  • Black people are more likely to receive a harsher police response for possession of drugs . In 2009/10 78% of black people caught in possession of cocaine by the Metropolitan Police were charged for this offence and only 22% received cautions. In comparison 44% of white people were charged for the same offence and 56% received cautions.
  • Black people caught in possession of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police are less likely to receive a cannabis warning than white people, and are charged at 5 times the rate of whites.
  • Prosecutions for drug possession are at an all-time high and this is primarily being driven by cannabis possession. In 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service brought more prosecutions for possession of drugs than in any other year since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - 43,406 people were found guilty of drug possession. 60% of these prosecutions were for cannabis.
  • Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences at 4.5 times the rate of whites, are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate, and are subject to immediate custody at 5 times the rate of white people.  
  • Once they have been taken to court black people are less likely to be given a suspended prison sentence for drug offences than white people.
  • Every year approximately 80,000 people in England and Wales are convicted or cautioned for possession of drugs.  In the 15 year period, 1996 to 2011, 1.2 million criminal records have been generated as a result of drug possession laws.  

Michael Shiner, co-author of the report and a senior lecturer in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics said: “It’s shocking that police officers are spending so much time targeting minor drug offences, rather than focusing on more serious matters. This is not the result of a carefully considered strategy, but is the unintended consequence of reforms that have created a perverse incentive structure, rewarding officers for going after easy pickings rather than doing good police work. While it is hard to see any benefits in terms of tackling serious crime or promoting public safety, there are real costs, including unnecessary infringements on people’s liberty, discrimination against minorities and loss of trust and confidence in the police.“

Eastwood goes on to say: “Black people are more likely to get a criminal record than white people, are more likely to be taken to court and are more likely to be fined or imprisoned for drug offences because of the way in which they are policed, rather than because they are more likely to use drugs. Despite calls for police reform of stop and search little has changed in the last 3 decades, this is why the Government needs to take action and change the law.  Decriminalisation of drug possession offences would end the needless stop and search of hundreds of thousands of innocent people every year and eliminate a significant source of discrimination with all its damaging consequences.”


Notes to editors:

  1. Release is the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law providing expert advice to the public.
  2. The Mannheim Centre for Criminology was set up at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in November 1990, and is named in honour of Hermann Mannheim. It is a multidisciplinary centre incorporating staff from across the School
  3. Report and Executive Summary attached.
  4. Decriminalisation is the application of civil sanctions for drug possession or a decision by the State or police not enforce the criminal laws in relation to the possession and/ use of drugs.

Press Enquiries:
Niamh Eastwood – 07900 002632/

The authors of the report will be available for interviews and comments.