Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Essay

Our drug laws are racist, and doctors must speak out—an essay by Simon Woolley

BMJ 2021; 374 doi: (Published 30 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2147
  1. Simon Woolley, member
  1. House of Lords, London
  1. woolleysa{at}

The 50 year old UK Misuse of Drugs Act has failed to reduce illicit drug supply, use, and harms and was designed, and continues to be used, as a tool of systemic racism, argues Simon Woolley

UK drug policy is a mess. As Carol Black’s review showed in detail, the UK’s consumption of illegal drugs is growing across all sectors of society and our treatment system is near collapse.1 Our drug related death rate is one of the highest in Europe, and the availability of drugs remains stubbornly high despite both covid-19 and regular much publicised drug busts.

Current drug policy fails everybody. But it fails black communities in particular. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, and nine times more likely when the reason given is suspected drug possession.23 And this is despite white people reporting higher rates of drug consumption.4

Suspicion of drug possession—often merely the claim that an officer can smell cannabis in the vicinity of the target—is the most common reason for searches by far. Black people are also much more likely to be arrested, charged, and imprisoned for drug offences.3 In 2017, black people were eight times more likely to be prosecuted for drug offences and nine times more likely to be sent to prison than white people.3

A war on people

A recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Council described the global war on drugs as “a war on people,” stating that the “criminalisation of drug use facilitates the deployment of the criminal justice system against drug users in a discriminatory way, with law enforcement officers often targeting members of vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as minorities [and] people of African descent.” It said the UK was a place where “minorities …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription