A big society or a breached social contract?

The attempt to control drug use through the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) has for forty years undermined trust in the criminal justice system.

Police stop and search

Rupert George is a project manager for Talking Drugs

The attempt to control drug use through the criminal sanctions laid out in the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) has, for the last forty years, undermined trust in the criminal justice system.

In 2005 the Sunday Times reported on Sir Ian Blair’s concerns about middle class drug use:

“The tests on the toilet seats of various clubs will tell you an awful lot of cocaine is going on in the centre of London and people think it is exempt from policing.”

It is hard not to agree with Sir Ian Blair, that for the middle classes the threat of arrest is perceived as so low that the Misuse of Drugs Act does not deter them from using drugs. However last year 79,413 people were found guilty or cautioned for possession and nearly 130,000 faced some form of lesser sanction. Who are these people?

Well a large proportion are young – of those convicted for possession offences 27.5 per cent were under 21. We don’t have statistics on the socio-economic background of those arrested, but perhaps we can trust Sir Ian Blair that an overly large proportion is not drawn from the middle classes. However we do, thanks to Professor Alex Stevens, have figures related to ethnicity. If you are black in the UK you are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 6 times more likely to be arrested and 11 times more likely to go to jail for drug offences.

Clearly some groups in society are being punished for their drug use and others are not. This is unfair and brings our criminal justice system into disrepute. Nearly a million people in the last ten years have acquired criminal records for drug offences and the majority probably feel that they have been singled out for a reason other than their drug use.

Even a simple stop and search has the power to alter somebody’s perception of their relationship with the law. The hated ‘sus’ law has long been seen as a major cause of the rioting during the 1980s. Differential treatment in the eyes of those caught up in the half-hearted enforcement of the MDA must be viewed as a breach of the social contract. If the law does not appear to provide protection from arbitrary arrest and interference, it does not appear to provide protection at all.

If you want a socially cohesive society this situation is clearly untenable. If you want to realise either the aspirations of David Cameron’s Big Society or to engage with the notions of national identity that Gordon Brown has espoused, then you cannot afford for people to feel they have been victimised for being poor, black or young.

Release has launched a campaign calling for a review of the UK drug laws. The campaign – Drugs – It’s Time for Better Laws – was launched on Thursday 02 June 2011 with an open letter to David Cameron signed by high profile individuals from the fields of arts; law; medicine; politics and academia. The public can get involved with the campaign here.

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