Global Drug Survey Shows How Policing of Drug Use Varies Worldwide

Source: Petras Gagilas

Getting caught with drugs can be a very stressful event in people’s lives. Criminal records for personal possession of drugs can ruin careers and opportunities and cost the police and legal system considerable time and money for uncertain gain.

Adding to the problem is that laws are not equally applied across cultures with significant racial bias. For example, the UK organisation Release and the London School of Economics recently released a report – ‘The Colour of Injustice: ‘Race’, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales’ – showing that black people were stopped and searched for drugs at almost nine times the rate of whites, and that despite lower rates of use black people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 times the rate of whites.

But, we have long suspected that policing approaches to people who use drugs are likely to vary across the globe and that the way people are treated by police may have implications not only for public health, human rights, and justice, but also for shaping future attitudes to police, such as trust. But we’ve never had a means to test this… until now. 

 As part of the Global Drug Survey (GDS) in 2017, we included the first drug policing module. This revealed that significant variation in experiences of policing of people who use drugs across the globe. For example, we found that after controlling for the prevalence of drug use people who use drugs were 4.8 times more likely to encounter police if they lived in Italy or Scotland, than if they lived in New Zealand.

For GDS2019 we extended this further – looking at policing experiences in more countries (>36) and incorporating newer methods of policing (e.g. roadside drug testing) and asking about attitudes to police. For example, do you trust the police in your country, and would you be willing to help the police if asked. 

Just over 52,000 respondents to GDS2019 completed the drug policing module – all who has used illicit drugs in the last year. Across the global sample, 23.7 per cent of all people who had recently used drugs reported they had encountered police in relation to their drug use in the last 12 months. Australia and Denmark had the highest reported rate of police encounters of people who use drugs in the last 12 months: with 51.1 per cent and 50.5 per cent respectively. In contrast, New Zealand had one of the lowest rates (11.3 per cent). 

But patterns of policing again differed across countries such as in their use of drug detection dogs versus stop and search. 

Comparisons of GDS2017 and GDS2019 suggest that most methods of policing have remained fairly stable, but that police encounters with drug detection dogs have increased in many countries (global average of 9.5 per cent respondents in GDS2017 vs 14.7 per cent in GDS2019), particularly in Australia, Denmark, Italy, and England. Does this matter? Yes, as we know drug detection dogs are more likely to encourage high risk behaviours e.g. people consuming all their drugs to avoid being caught in their possession. 

Interestingly, most respondents (all people who use drugs) had favourable attitudes to police. 50 per cent of respondents said police frequently/somewhat frequently treat people with dignity and respect and 49.5 per cent said police frequently/somewhat frequently make fair and impartial decisions. But those who have been recently policed had less favourable attitudes and were less likely to report they would help the police if asked. Importantly, we also have the first evidence that attitudes of people to police may vary across countries. For example, attitudes of people who use drugs to police were more favourable in New Zealand – including those who had been policed. In contrast, in the United States and Germany attitudes to police were less favourable, particularly amongst those recently policed. 

We have much more data analysis to do. But these results suggest that on the ground experiences of policing of people who use drugs continue to vary across the globe. They further suggest that countries have multiple choices in the extent and nature of policing of people who use drugs: do they want to be more hands on or hands off? Finally, they start to suggest that irrespective of what country you live in, police and governments may have a vested interest in building more procedurally just responses to people who use drugs. 

Find out more about the Global Drug Survey.

*Dr Caitlin Hughes - Senior Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia

*Professor Adam R Winstock - Founder & CEO Global Drug Survey