In discussions about stop and search, racism and young people, there is an elephant in the room. Brian Richardson says it’s time to end the "war on drugs".
David Lammy is clearly a man who has been liberated by his removal from the rigours of high political office. This year he has raged with righteous anger about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, demanding corporate manslaughter charges against those responsible for the deaths of dozens of people including his friend, the 24 year old artist Khadija Saye. In addition he has spoken with passion on Stand Up to Racism platforms and published a government commissioned review into racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
The Lammy report received a mixed reception, including in the pages of Socialist Review, and elsewhere Lammy faced accusations that he had allowed himself to be used by a Tory administration that has no interest in addressing issues of racism.
There should be no doubt that Lammy is genuinely committed to real change. He has vehemently defended himself against his accusers with the declaration that his was the most comprehensive report of its kind ever, focusing not simply upon the police. He was also entitled to point out that he was not asked to consider the question of stop and search and also that there are already a vast number of reports about this issue. Furthermore, his report included a number of serious recommendations that should be implemented without delay including the pursuit of alternatives to prosecution and the sealing of criminal records to enable ex-offenders to move on with their lives.
Unfortunately however, his report and its proposals are hamstrung by a crucial omission — stop and search is simply too central, too controversial and too important to ignore. It was the biggest bone of contention raised at the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the principal reason why the chair of that inquiry Sir William Macpherson reached his landmark conclusion about the prevalence of institutional racism when he published his report way back in 1999.
Then and now the police response is to say that it is a vital tool in their kitbag but one which they are determined to deploy more sensitively and with an intelligence led approach.
It is true that these encounters have dropped by 21 percent in the past year to their lowest since 2002 and they have dropped for all racial groups. But there were still around 304,000 in England and Wales and there is still huge disproportionality. The drop for white people was 28 per cent while for those classified as black it was only 11 percent. Black people are still eight times more likely to be stopped and searched while all “ethnic minority” people are four times more likely.
Lammy’s headline call is for criminal justice agencies to explain the disparities that exist or reform. The problem here is that it is usually fairly easy for police officers to justify their actions. The principal power to stop and search is contained in a number of statutes including the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In essence, they must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they will find stolen or prohibited articles.
Proponents of these powers will argue that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Furthermore, with regard to the racial disparities, Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick recently pointed to the fact that 21 of the 25 teenage homicide victims in London in 2017 were black. The other four were Asian. These are chilling facts that we clearly need to talk about as Guardian columnist Gary Younge is attempting to do. However they cannot excuse the fact that a staggering percentage of stops are illegal according to the government’s own findings.
Furthermore such arguments ignore the reality of how blunt an instrument stop and search is. Only 17 percent of those conducted in the past year led to an arrest and, of course, a mere fraction of these lead to a successful prosecution.
Compared to their limited impact in detecting or stopping crime the capacity of stops to stir up resentment is huge. All too often they lead to circumstances in which a young person, stopped for the umpteenth time, is wound up to such an extent that they react or resist and find themselves facing an assault charge and a criminal record. Worse still, these encounters sometimes end in fatalities as another recent report into deaths in custody has highlighted.
There is another factor that we need to talk about. Much of the time the “prohibited articles etc” that the police are searching for are drugs. A joint London School of Economics/Release report in 2013 indicated that 50 percent of searches were for this reason. The question this raises is why, to which the immediate answer is because certain drugs are prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, that answer simply exposes the hypocrisy of these laws.
I’m no advocate of drug taking. Beyond some very limited medicinal benefits I believe that most drugs are harmful and have a real concern that much of the stuff that is consumed today, skunk for example, is far more damaging to people’s health than that which was commonly consumed in times past.
When taken in moderation, however, cannabis, cocaine and heroin are no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal in most jurisdictions and cause far more deaths per year. It should also be noted that the danger from many drugs does not stem primarily from the narcotic itself but, rather, from the substances they are mixed with to bulk them up and increase their street price. The issue here then is the drive for profit which motivates drug suppliers every bit as much as any “legitimate” entrepreneur.
The laws we have both in Britain and other countries obsessed by the “war on drugs” are absurd and unrealistic, which is why respected bodies such as the British Medical Association and Royal Society for Public Health have called for them to be reformed. Millions of people in Britain take illegal drugs and cracking down on Class A drug use in England and Wales alone is estimated to cost an astonishing £15.4 billion per year.
If people are going to take drugs then they should be able to do so with some degree of reassurance about what they are putting in their bodies. That in turn might go some way towards rescuing those poor young black and white working class people who get caught up in the precarity of drugs supply. Meanwhile the £535 million per annum spent on drugs arrests could be put to far more beneficial use. Arguably if that money was spent on real training, education and employment opportunities, fewer young people would find themselves slinging dope on street corners and fewer would need the illusory protection provided of gangs, guns and knives.
While we continue to live under a system where profit is more important than safety and the quality of people’s lives, however, there is no guarantee about the quality and content of the products that are manufactured. This brings me onto one final, crucial point. People take drugs to escape from the agonies of an exploitative and oppressive society. Rather than simply tinkering around with small changes and handing more profits to another group of vultures, surely the ultimate solution is to fight for a society in which to coin the words of one of the songs on Stevie Wonder’s seminal album Songs in the Key of Life, “just to live for us is our natural high.”