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Articles - Minorities
Written by Philip Guy   

Race And The ‘Drug Problem’ More Than Just An Enforcement Issue

Philip Guy

The racially biased implementation of The United Kingdom’s drug laws has been extensively documented. Although people from the ethnic minorities are no more likely to use illicit drugs than the majority they are more likely to suffer harassment on the basis of a suspicion that they are involved in drugs. They are also more likely to be arrested and charged in relation to a drug offence. People of Black-African and African-Caribbean background are more likely to be found guilty of a drug offence and they are more likely to serve a custodial sentence. It has become popular to consider this issue in terms of policing and bias within the criminal justice system alone. This paper takes a broader look at the issue and considers the way in which race and drugs have been inexorably connected in law and the popular imagination as issues of concern.


The over representation of black people as suspects, defendants and offenders within the criminal justice system generally, and in relation to drug offences specifically, has been highlighted consistently by official statistics and studies (Home Office 1986, 1989, 1994). Black people are no more likely to use illicit drugs than white people (Auld et al 1986, Inner London Probation Service 1991, Mirza et al 1991, Leitner et al 1993) The British Crime Survey last asked questions about ethnicity in 1996. Since this time its conclusion that black people are marginally less likely to use drugs has not been contradicted (Ramsay and Percy 1996). School age children and young people are a central focus of recent policy statements, (Home Office 1998). Amongst this age group black people are also no more likely to use illicit drugs than white people (O’Connor et al 1998). However this is not reflected in any aspect of the criminal justice system. In 1990 for example, the rate of imprisonment for drug related offenses amongst Black African and African-Caribbean men was three times higher than that for white men (Home Office 1994 table 7).

Many of the drug offenses that Black African and African-Caribbean people are convicted for relate to the ‘supply’ of drugs rather than the lesser charge of ‘possession’. As Dorn et al (1992:44) point out, racial stereotypes are prominent in relation to this issue. The marketing of drugs is portrayed as a highly organized industry in which black people play a dominant role. However, the dichotomy between drug dealers and drug users is not as clear-cut as popular myth and the law would suggest. Drug dealers often use drugs themselves and trade on a relatively small scale in order to finance their own use. Moreover, drug dealing is far from being the preserve of black people. Traditionally, as Dorn et al point out, white dealers have dominated this sphere of economic activity.

Set against the actual levels of black people’s involvement in drug use and drug markets the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and the related Drug Trafficking Offences Act (1986) can be seen as racist legislation, within the terms outlined by the enquiry into the death of Stepthen Lawrence (MacPherson 1999). A disproportionately high number of black people are prosecuted than their empirically demonstrated involvement with drugs would warrant.

A contributory reason for the disproportionate numbers of black people as drug offenders within the criminal justice system is their disproportionate representation as offenders generally. Bias in particular has been found in the process of arrest (Smith 1983, Smith and Gray 1985, Jefferson 1988, 1991, Dholokia and Sumner 1993). This has been strongly connected to the high levels of policing that black communities have been subjected to, through indiscriminate stop and search activities, suspicion and harassment (Gilroy 1987, Cashmore and McLaughlin 1991, Hiro 1992, Kieth 1991). This bias begins a process in which black people are more likely to be charged with an offense and less likely to be cautioned (Landuau and Nathan 1983, Cain and Sadigh 1982, Mair 1986) Within this process it is acknowledged that black people are more likely to be convicted (Home Office 1983).

As Berridge (1978,1984) points out, much of the stimulus for drug legislation has come from the United States of America. Here too drug use is predominantly a white activity yet black people, as drug related offenders, are over represented within the criminal justice system (United Nations International Drug Control Program 1997:330, The Economist 1999).

This paper focuses in particular on the drug problem and the legislation enacted to address it. It is argued that as the drug problem is constructed as a black problem this in part contributes to the racist outcomes that result from law enforcement. It is not being claimed that a racist outcome is intentional. It is rather suggesting that it is inevitable given the links that are made between immigration, race and drugs.

Within this paper the way that the drug problem has been perceived as a threat from outside and more specifically a black threat will be highlighted. This will be followed by a consideration of the parliamentary debate that informed the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Race was the unspoken and unacknowledged context of the debate. The absence of race as an explicit issue during the debate produced legislation ill suited to a multiracial society.

The Social Construction of the drug problem

It is possible to consider drugs as an issue predominantly in terms of the user; prevention and treatment rather than view the issue as one which requires large sums of money for the pursuit of drug dealers and one in which the criminal justice system takes the lead role. The Dutch have taken this view creating a comprehensive treatment service (Van Brussel 1998, Spruit1998) achieving consistently, and by a long way, the lowest death rates in Europe (European Communities 1997:10). The Dutch, with only a quarter of Britain’s population and fewer drug users, are spending twice as much on prevention and treatment services (European Communities 1997:10, Spruit 1998:109, Home Office 1998:16.40).

In the United Kingdom, although a combined approach involving prevention and treatment on the one hand, and enforcement on the other, is the official policy it is the latter that has the highest political profile and receives the most financial resources. This has been a contributory factor leading to a situation in which black people are more likely to be convicted of a drug related crime. In examining the court processes Kalunta- Crumton (1998) concluded that in part the high levels of conviction for drug offences amongst black people depended on a social construction of black people along racist lines. Within this construction claims are made as to the justice of the case being heard;

Although the claims-making process took place within the framework of a situational context, barristers’ rhetoric reflected and reproduced the picture of the wider society. Barristers’ discourse entailed the perpetuation of knowledge and beliefs about race. Deprivation, crime and drugs: it involved the solidification of images of race, sexuality and violence; it meant the propagation of allegations of police use of racist language, police brutality, police indiscriminate suspicion and harassment of black people, (Kalunta-Crumpton 1998:587).

Black people are part of the social construction of the ‘drug problem’. A central feature of this problem historically and contemporary is a felt need to protect citizens from unscrupulous foreign criminals who will corrupt our nation’s people, undermine its moral values and degrade its national stock. Black people in Britain are seen as the street runners for an international trade that will, unless due steps are taken corrupt society. Immigration law and drug prohibition have been the steps chosen by consecutive governments to counter such fears.

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1920) introduced the notion of a drug problem along contemporary lines as a permanent feature of United Kingdom law. In the same year the Aliens Act required visitors to fill in landing and embarkation cards. The connection between drugs and race has not been an obscure one in the minds of legislators. Both issues coalesce around the provisions of the peace treaty of Versailles and a fear of being overwhelmed by alien influences. The Drug Misuse Act of 1920 was an extension of the Defense of the Realm Act section 40B. This act had been introduced in 1916 as a temporary measure to prohibit the use of drugs during wartime. As Berridge (1978, 1984) points out, the fear that lay behind this legislation centered on the belief that Britain’s fighting ability was in danger of being undermined. Britain’s enemies, at that time Imperial Germany, it was said, were cocaine traffickers. This was a charge based on Germanys pioneering and entirely legitimate role in cocaine manufacture.

By the 1920s the fear of German domination had receded and in its place came a long line of nationalities, often dark skinned, to act as the focal point of concern. Usually, in the 1920s the Chinese opium trafficker, a traditional villain of the 1880s was cast as the folk devil. This was a reflection of the settlement of Chinese people in the poorer areas of Liverpool and London’s East End (Kohn 1991,1999). It can also be seen in the contemporary novels like “Dope: A Story of China Town and the Drug Traffic” (Rohmer 1919). In their day depending on the popular fears of the time Pakistanis, Turks and Black African and African-Caribbean’s have all played this role, particularly when their presence is noticeable on Britain’s streets, (Cambell 1998).

By the 1950s new fears around the immigration of Black African and African-Caribbean’s became the issue around which concerns focused. The connection between race, drugs and immigration was drawn together in an article that appeared in The Times in 1957. The author pointed out uncritically that in seven out of eight convictions for cannabis possession those found guilty were black.  By linking this with an allegation that easy money was to be made from selling drugs the author was able to draw on a pre existing discourse about black people that connects them with notions of being feckless and lazy. The author spoke for many when he pointed out that while there were large numbers of black immigrants there would also be a drug problem. Contrary to historical fact (Berridge and Edwards (1987), it was argued that there was no widespread drug use in The United Kingdome before Black African and African-Caribbean immigration.

Thus a connection was made between ‘swelling numbers’ of black people and drug use. The fear expressed was that drug use would spread to innocent, young, white people. Worse was predicted.

White girls who become friendly with West Indians are from time to time enticed into hemp smoking. It is usually a case of being willing to try anything once and is seldom a devastating experience. But this is, none the less, an aspect of the hemp problem-the possibility of it spreading among irresponsible white people-that causes greatest concern to the authorities. The potential moral danger is significant, since a principle motive of the colored man in smoking hemp is to stimulate his sexual desires, (The Times July 15th 1957).

According to the Times white girls are enticed into hemp smoking, they do not exercise their free will. The drug dealer is portrayed as the cause, rather than the effect, of the desire to take drugs. It is the motives of the black man that make the situation problematic. Both the barristers observed by Kalunta-Crumpton and the anonymous Times journalist achieve their argumentative power through an appeal to the prejudice people may have about the black mans sexuality. It is not the chemical properties of cannabis that are of real concern here, it is rather the social position of the actors and the right and wrong of what they might do. A vision of race defilement is being promoted and if drugs are not a powerful enough image on their own the connection with sex may well be.

There is much that is familiar in the above passage. Deviant black verses innocent white in an unequal contest is a theme with a long lineage. A version of this basic story can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, one of western cultures most revered authors. Othelo Shakespeare’s only leading black skinned character is suspected of using drugs in order to seduce his white, female victim.  As Kohn (1991,1999) points out the same themes can also be found in newspaper coverage of cocaine use before and after the first world war where they are used to argue against the emancipation of women.

In less sensitive times the basic elements of this discourse were repeated, even in widely read academic texts on the subject. At times this has been through uncritical accounts of the drug issue as in George Lyle’s account of a police raid in London (Lyle 1953).  Max Glatt, probably the most respected authority in Britain in the addictions field during the 1950s and 60s reproduced, with his co-authors, the same basic story line also without critical comment. In the next passage Glatt et al’s respondent Laura, is recalling where she obtained her drugs.

The big pushers were colored...they’ve been all around the world and import it by various methods and things. They used to get it in by wood and that sorta thing. Colored people only touch that (hemp), they don’t go in for that (hard drugs)... They’re (the coloureds) users themselves, but view it as a business...the big ones, not the hustlers (Glatt et al 1967:52 emphasis as original).

The readers of this text are not told that this is a subjective view of drug dealing, based on the limited experience of one person, one social circle and one particular time. However other details of Laura’s life are made clear. Laura is a heroin and cocaine user described as the adopted child of a highly respected and wealthy English family. Laura’s story, as Glatt et al present it, could be paraphrased as the fall from grace of a classic English rose. By using drugs Laura has fallen under the influence of malevolent black people and has fallen from the comfortable streets of Chelsea to the deprivation and shame of the police cell.

Race and the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

The basis of current law is the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). A cursory examination of the parliamentary debates that informed the 1971 Act might suggest that the Act represents a backlash by the establishment against the popular culture of the 1960s. This culture itself is not immune from suggestions that it represents a foreign influence upon Britain’s youth, however the Act was passed at a time when Britain’s national identity was in question through a number of other influences. Race and immigration were contentious social and political issues throughout the period. Britain was also struggling with its national identity in what were post imperial times, an adjustment emphasized by attempts to join the Common Market and the presence on Britain’s streets of the far right white supremacists group The National Front.

Although the Act was in line with much that had gone before it, it differed by attempting to separate drug dealers from those in possession of drugs along the lines of popular myth. A further feature of the Act was its intent of classifying drugs in terms of their dangerousness. However the drugs classified and prohibited by the Misuse of Drugs Act were not selected on any objective consideration of the danger they may pose to the user. McLean suggests that more salient as an issue is the degree to which the use of a particular drug could be said to undermine the values of mainstream culture.

The physical dangers inherent in the particular substances, and personal and social harm caused by them, are not the primary reasons for the official responses to, and popular perceptions of, specific drugs. The differentiation between legal and illegal drugs is not one which can be rationally explained in terms of their chemical properties. Rather the social position and type of user are of great importance (Mclean 1985:118).

At the time that the legislation was under consideration parliament was in possession of a report by a committee chaired by Baroness Wootton. This committee had been set up by the Government to examine the legislation of cannabis and had made exhaustive inquiries amongst experts in the field. However, in Richard Crossman’s account of the cabinet discussions on this issue it is clear that the merit of the policy positions as protective measures were secondary to ambition and political expediency. Thus, for example, the central issue of whether the penalties for cannabis possession should be reduced to a minimum along the lines of the Wootton committee’s recommendations was not dealt with on its merits. Rather, the jockeying for position and the courting of public opinion took precedence over what should have been a considered question (Howard 1979:668-689).

It was an attempt to table an amendment in the Commons to the bill by the Hon. Member for High Peaks Peter Jackson that demonstrated during the second reading of the Drugs Bill that some M Ps realized that they were not legislating purely on the basis of danger. The outright rejection by parliament of the Jackson amendment that nicotine should be included in the new bill was a clear indication that the distinctions being made were social, political and economic.

Those who supported the Bill in full also appreciated that they could not justify their position unless they disregarded the Wootton report. The second reading of the bill in the Commons produced a response from the Secretary of State for the Home Office, James Callaghan, who had responsibility for the bill, that he felt that he lacked knowledge of the true consequences of drug use. This view was also endorsed by William Deeds the shadow Secretary of State and was apparent in subsequent debates in both houses. This placed the legislators in the curious position of rejecting a considered opinion on the basis that their judgment was superior whilst at the same time claiming ignorance (Parliamentary Debates 798:1495-1497).

The stop and search powers that parliament ceded to the police under the Misuse of Drugs Act are the linchpin of many explanations for the disproportionate numbers of black people within the criminal justice system. As both the Scarman Report on “Inner City Disturbances” and “The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry” pointed out, ‘stop and search’ powers and the way that the police use them are a major source of tension between the police and the black community (Scarman 1981, MacPherson 1999). In 1993 the ‘stop search’ powers were five times more likely to be used in connection with black Londoners than whites and of those subjected to the stop and search powers 42% were of ethnic background (Cited in Tyler 1995:24). “The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry” highlighted similar statistics covering a period five years later in 1997-98(Macpherson 1999.312)

The issue of police ‘stop and search’ powers under the proposed act was raised for consideration during the second reading of the Bill. Some of those who wished to debate these issues were of the view that during the passage of the Act of 1967 when these powers had first been written into drug related law a proper debate had not occurred. As Michael Foot, one of the few dissenting voices in the entire process put it;

This is an essential part of how we are to sustain confidence in the law and in the police. It is not a small question. It is not a question to be dealt with at the tail-end of a session when we are trying to rush legislation through. We rushed it through before and as a result, the law in many parts of the country has been brought into disrepute (Parliamentary Debates 798:1498). 

It was the view of Michael Foot that the police in order to harass young people was misusing these powers. Moreover, although the powers had been acquired ostensibly to deal mainly with heroin, LSD and amphetamine, their use in practice revolved around cannabis possession, (Parliamentary Debates:798:1495-1497).

In the committee stages of the proposed Act further concern was voiced about the renewed ‘stop and search’ powers. It was pointed out that the ‘stop and search’ powers might be wrongly directed towards those who had long hair, did not wear a tie and wore peculiar clothes. The question of the most easily identifiable individual characteristic, skin colour, and how it and the myths attached to it might prompt discrimination were not raised in the six days of consideration.

One Standing Committee member, Timothy Raison, choosing an unfortunate turn of phrase, did reflect the fact that around 85% of future convictions under the Act would be for the possession of cannabis.

My right hon. friend was absolutely right when he said that the nigger in the woodpile was cannabis. If cannabis did not exist, the opposition to stop and search proposals would largely disappear. We have this drug, which a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, believe does no harm, and because of this we have the degree of resentment that we have, (Standing Committee Session 1970-71.l 1: 183).

Baroness Serota also questioned the equity of the ‘stop and search’ powers once more during the final reading of the bill in the Lords, but again this was placed firmly within a discourse about age and generation and not in connection with skin colour (Parliamentary Debates Lords Vol 616 1971 Cols 1020-1021).

Some sections of parliament were not able, or not willing to make the public connection between drugs and race that many others outside of government would make. The notion that the police could act in a racialised way had been rejected by many of the same parliamentary personalities in their debate on the Race Relations Act two years before. The notion that the police would act in a racialised way on the drugs issue and that the rest of the criminal justice system could follow suit was thus not on the agenda. These parliamentary debates however preceded by a few months those on The Immigration Act (1971). The racist intent of the Immigration Act in excluding ‘coloured’ immigrants without hindering white immigration has long been recognized (Gilroy1987, Solomos 1992). Although the connection between drugs, immigration and race was not made so explicit, the Misuse of drugs Act and the Immigration Act were near neighbors in the parliamentary schedule in much the same way that the origins of both acts, the Aliens Act (1920) and the Drug Misuse Act (1920), had been.

In between readings of the Misuse of Drugs Act on the 8th of February 1971, the Secretary of State for the Home Office James Callaghan gave a written answer to a question that asked if the forthcoming Immigration Act would deal adequately with illegal immigrants and the drugs they brought with them. The Secretary of State had the opportunity to refute the insinuation contained within the question; there were, however, few politically expedient reasons for doing so. The Home Secretary had already expressed his intention, in private, to appear tough on the issue (Howard 1979:668-689). Rather than take action that may have been out of kilter with public opinion, the Home Secretary gave his assurances that his parliamentary colleague would not be disappointed, (Parliamentary Debates: 811:532).

The connection between a racialised version of immigration and drug use persisted into the 1980s in the form of the police Central Drugs and Illegal Immigration Intelligence Unit. The title of this information gathering and dissemination Unit suggests that it is widespread illegal immigration that was the real problem. However, despite its title, the unit did not confine its interests to illegal immigration. Rather it cast its remit wider, also regarding legal immigrants as a danger and thus a legitimate target, (Dorn et al 1992).

In their overview of the history of police drug intelligence gathering, Dorn et al suggest that the bringing together of these two issues reflected traditional concerns. The combination of drugs and immigration intelligence as a vital tool in law enforcement rested on an easily refuted perception that it was legal and illegal immigrants who were responsible for much of the drugs problem in Britain. The existence of a unit with this title may well have reinforced this racially based prejudice amongst those responsible for law and order, merely by its existence and regardless of its role in informing and shaping law enforcement agendas.

The Intelligence Unit, as well as serving to legitimize racism, also highlighted the point that although ‘stop and search’ powers may appear random in their application, and if unfairly applied could be passed off as only driven by the prejudice of individual police officers, in reality the prejudice being underscored is a widely shared one. This was a point re-enforced by “The Stephen Lawrance Inquiry” in recommendations to bring the use of ‘stop search’ powers under more rigorous control (Macpherson 1999:333-334)

As befits a prejudice with such a long lineage this notion did not disappear when the Intelligence Unit was renamed. Rather it re-emerged in a number of new initiatives that included the recasting of Black African and African-Caribbean’s into criminal gangs allegedly engaged in the large scale importation of cocaine into Britain (Dorn et al  1992:153).

The fears that these initiatives were based on lay behind the Drug Trafficking Offenses Act 1986. This was largely a reaction to the old fear that United Kingdom society was vulnerable to the unscrupulous outsider. In this version of the myth it was held that crack cocaine would flood in and reap havoc within the inner cities. Tyler documents this episode in the long history of the black drug trafficker myth, including the leaking of stories to the media.

A special Crack Intelligence Unit was set up by the Metropolitan Police and, soon after, the media began reporting stories about Yardies - gun-toting Jamaican gangsters and crack dealers who, it was said, were so fearlessly ruthless they scared even the hard cases of the American ghettos (Tyler 1995:211).


The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) reaffirmed the right of the state to intervene in the private lives of the citizen, at a time when in other equally contentious areas of personal conduct like for example, sexual practices, the state was withdrawing. One way of measuring the success of the State in controlling drug use would be the extent to which drug use has declined as an activity since 1971. Few would make great claims for the Act in this area.

The central paradox of the Misuse of Drugs Act is that the possession of demonstrably dangerous drugs like alcohol and nicotine continue to be legal and within the law, whilst the possession of other substances, (cocaine, cannabis and opium based preparations) remained illegal. A casual consideration of the thinking that underpins the Act might lead to the assumption that the legal drugs remain legal because they are drugs predominantly regarded as white drugs and the illegal drugs are viewed as traditionally used by black people. Although it is social, political and economic distinctions that the Misuse of Drugs Act makes, this is a position that is difficult to sustain.

Nevertheless the act was about people as much as it ever was about the danger of substances. In the debates around the Act the fear of youth and the new morality were made explicit, whilst underneath lay a prejudice that was increasingly only voiced in private. The Misuse of Drugs Act took twenty-one months to pass through parliament and into law. This was arguably more than enough time to create a legal framework of sufficient rigor to leave little room for the exercise of personal and even institutionalized prejudice. The opportunity was not taken to understand the issues fully and dispel the prevailing myths. Thus within the legislative framework and the manner of its enforcement white people and their lifestyles have always taken precedence.

There is nothing within the Misuse of Drugs Act that could lead, in itself, to a racist outcome. It is rather what is not said by the Act and the circumstances within which the Act was constructed and operates that give rise to concern. In their discussions of this issue the House of Commons and the House of Lords displayed a sometimes subtle and covert form of racism, through a long standing discourse about the drug problem and the threat from outside it posed, parliament felt it had enough knowledge, only the detail remained obscure.

Through omission, throughout the debates there was a denial that cultural and institutional racism may be a factor in the implementation of the new law. The ensuing discussions were colour blind and at no point was there the merest hint that people from different ethnic backgrounds may need different provisions under the law in order to safeguard their civil rights. By accepting through omission that equality between black and white people existed, the course that the debates ran was one that suggests that racism is not an important feature of the criminal justice system and can safely be ignored. The Act was ill conceived from this perspective, as the definition of institutional racism provided by Dr Benjamin Bowling to ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’ makes clear.

some discrimination practices are the product of uncritical rather than unconscious racism. That is, practices with a racist outcome are not engaged in without the actor’s knowledge; rather, the actor has failed to consider the consequences of his or her actions for people from ethnic minorities (MacPherson 1999:27 emphasis as in original).

The prevailing view of drug use is the context against which the Act can be understood. In the same way that the construction of the drug problem revolves around the evil pusher and the hapless victim, the Act separated the dealer from the user. In parliament only the skin colour of the participants was left opaque. The Act is thus a legislative vehicle based on prejudice and without proper safeguards.


The disproportionate numbers of black people as drug offenders within the criminal justice system has been documented consistently through empirical research at a level of robustness sufficient for it to be regarded as a matter of record. Research has highlighted explanatory links based on a combination of practices and prejudice at a number of levels. However no explanation of this over representation is complete without an understanding of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and the dialogue that informed it. In particular the links that are made in the construction of the drug problem between drugs, race and immigration need to be understood as part of the overall picture.

The Misuse of Drugs Act originates from a period in which race and immigration were particularly contentious. National identity was also in question during a process that moved Britain closer to Europe. It was unlikely in such circumstances that the racial stereotypes and myths that surround drug use could have been dispelled or countered by a government whose real concern was public opinion.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was not truly premised on the dangers of the substances it sought to control. It was rather a measure based on the myth that at the center of the drug issue were black drug traffickers and hapless white victims. The Act is thus a vehicle that can be used to oppress sections of the population chosen on the basis of their skin colour. In particular the ‘stop and search’ powers that drive the criminal justice system by providing it with suspects was informed by a debate that excluded those who would most likely be police targets.


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