Busted! How Police Detect, Deal with Drug Possession Around the World

Different police approaches to drugs around the world

The 2017 Global Drug Survey aims to be the biggest drug survey ever carried out.

Getting caught with drugs can be extremely stressful. Criminal records for personal possession of drugs can ruin careers and opportunities. It also costs the police and legal system considerable time and money for uncertain gain.

Adding to the problem is that drug laws are not equally applied, with significant racial bias when it comes to penalties, and even different versions of the same drugs carrying different sanctions. One of the more notorious examples of the latter can be found in the United States, where crack cocaine is way worse than cocaine powder when it comes to sentencing – gram-for-gram the sentence is 18 times greater for crack*.

Countries differ in the lengths that they go to in order to find people in possession of drugs, with some fonder of using sniffer dogs and roadside drug testing than others. And, of course, there is the substantial international variation where penalties for simple possession are concerned. They can vary from casual police indifference, a smack on the wrist or an informal caution, to a court appearance, criminal record, fines, prison or worse.

With such variation it is rather odd that there is no solid outline of the differences and similarities in approaches taken to drugs policing globally. The following questions, for example, remain largely unanswered - Which countries use drug detection dogs for routine drugs policing? And, how often are people who use drugs stopped and searched for drugs?

This is a significant gap and one that the 2017 Global Drug Survey is going to plug.

Collaborating with Dr Caitlin Hughes, a criminologist and drug policy expert at the University of New South Wales, Australia, we will provide the first cross-national insight into the frequency of drug-related police encounters in different parts of the globe; the nature and severity of these encounters; and, the factors that predict high frequency police encounters for people who use drugs e.g. age, gender, and ethnicity.

The key questions we will be asking include whether people have encountered police with drug detection dogs in the last year at any setting excluding airports (for example, at a music festival); whether they have been stopped and searched for drugs; and, whether they have been arrested for drugs. We will also look at diversionary options: whether people have encountered police for drugs but received a warning or referral to treatment instead of being charged.

Understanding how drug laws are applied across the world at a time of huge changes in policy and technology is hugely important in helping governments consider alternative approaches and identifying what is most just and humane (and the true resource implications of the investment in policing drugs).

In the eyes of the law, all people should be equal. But, we know that what is written in the statute books and what is meant to happen are often different from the reality experienced by thousands of people every day.

So, if you’ve ever been sniffed by a dog or searched by the police and wondered “is this what everyone experiences?” or, “what would happen if I lived in another country?” then take a few minutes to share your experience so that we can tell the world how the police deal with drugs around the globe.

Go to www.globaldrugsurvey.com/GDS2017.

*The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changed the ratio of crack-to-powder cocaine (for purposes of imposing the same sentence for possession of each form of the drug) from 100-to-one to 18-to-one.

*

Dr. Winstock is the founder of the Global Drug Survey and is a consultant psychiatrist. Dr. Hughes is senior research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia.