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Intersecting Drug Policy and Abolition: A Conversation

The War on Drugs has failed in its stated goal of reducing drug use and sale and has instead resulted in a devastating trail of trauma, pain, and suffering, for families, and communities, with communities of colour facing the harshest impact.

Globally, Black Brown and Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement and face discrimination across the criminal justice system.

The War on Drugs has provided the architecture, in many ways, within which racist and colonialist laws, policies and practices can operate. Our work to decolonise drug policy seeks to raise awareness of the racism and colonialism underlying international drug control, and its impact on the health and human rights of individuals and communities in order to begin to dismantle these destructive policies.

This conversation between Imani Mason Jordan, Gracie Bradley and Shanice McBean took place via Zoom on Wednesday 8th September 2021, as part of "Decolonising drug policy: British policing, the war on drugs, and the everyday impacts of colonialism," co-hosted by Release and Harm Reduction International.

Imani Mason Jordan is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, editor and facilitator.

Gracie Bradley is an activist, campaigner and writer and also the ex-director of Liberty.

Shanice McBean is an anti-racist organizer who has done, loads of wonderful work with Sisters Uncut, #KilltheBill, and CopWatch.


Imani Mason Jordan

The guiding question for our conversation today is: what can a deeper understanding of British colonialism teach us about contemporary policing and drug prohibition, and how can we use these lessons to better our organising work today?

As I have discussed in my own work and writing, the War on Drugs is driven by carceral and colonial logics across the continuum of policing, prison, detention, borders, surveillance… I've been particularly interested in what is made visible through the framing of the War on Drugs as a form of state violence, and the specific ways in which drug policy is used as a tool of racial and social control in the UK and elsewhere.

I have asked Gracie and Shanice both to join this conversation because I know that they are committed to working within anti-carceral, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist frameworks towards the horizon of abolition. And I really want to bring this conversation more deeply into the realm of drug policy and drug policy reform.

Gracie Bradley

What do we miss when we don't understand colonial legacies of policing? How can understanding those legacies improve our organising work? I spent a little while thinking about this and I thought it would be really useful to talk through the formation of the police in Britain.

There's a good faith view that policing, prisons and criminalisation are about public protection, about keeping us all safe from harm. There are those of us who know from our interactions with the police that that view is a fiction. I would say that it's something that is radically underappreciated and often intentionally ignored by people in policy spaces concerned with criminal punishment. Obviously, I was Director of Liberty for a while, I've had some interesting interactions with public officials, and there was a Senior Official at the Home Office who once asked me: "Why do Western nations have such difficulty with the police and their ethnic minority populations?". I didn't have the time or the institutional mandate to answer that for him then but it struck me how different our conversations and our understanding of the present day is when we see how colonial legacies continue to reverberate.

Policing has always been concerned with protecting wealth in the context of racial capitalism. It's always been concerned with the surveillance and discipline of suspect populations. And those techniques of discipline have been frequently developed in Britain's overseas colonies, and refined and redeployed on the British mainland, frequently against the descendants of colonised people, very often in the inner cities spaces that you might have heard dubbed "internal colonies."

If we understand the origins of British policing, we understand what policing is for: the surveillance and discipline of suspect populations in service of capital and the state. It's not something that was made to keep us safe. And when I say us, I am thinking about “us” in its most expansive sense. I think that Teju Cole, who's a writer and photographer, said it best: "I reject the poverty of a narrowly defined ‘we’". If we reject that “narrowly defined we”, and define it as something other than simply the ruling class, we define that as working-class people, racialized people, disabled people, people who use drugs, people of minoritized gender and sexual identities. It's at that point that that magical correspondence between policing and keeping us safe from harm, disappears. That was never the intention.

If we understand its colonial legacy, we can stop lamenting a broken institution and understand it as an institution that is working as it was supposed to, and we can stop pouring resources into that institution in the hope of reforming it, because it was never intended to be better than this.

Instead, we can spend our time, our energy, and our resources genuinely trying to respond to social problems and their causes. And I suppose, the last thing that I wanted to bring into my contribution here is just something that Mariame Kaba tells us, which is that not all harm is criminalised, and not everything criminalised is harmful. If we don't understand the colonial history of policing and criminal punishment, we can't properly appreciate the gap between harm and criminality. We can't really understand how the notion of criminality has been developed and deployed over time by the state to serve certain interests.

Campaign groups are really apt to expend a lot of energy claiming that certain people are not criminals. We hear it all the time: "asylum seekers aren't criminals," "protesters aren't criminals," "protest is not a crime," and so on. What all of that does is reify and legitimize the category of the criminal. It says there is really a criminal somewhere, it's just not us over here. And I think that for many reasons that leads us to a dead end, you know. Audre Lorde said it: “we don't live single issue lives”, and I think, if you're someone who is working because you want to protect the rights of people who use drugs, you have to appreciate that, and you will know that drug use is not all that somebody's life is. They're going to be exposed to violence across multiple different axes of their lives. We don't exist in silos.

Shanice McBean

I think it's important to talk about drug policy specifically, because policy is enforced, and how policy is enforced matters. That raises the question of who is it enforced against? And the police are the key way in which drug policy is enforced. They're no longer the only way drug policy is enforced, with counterterrorism policy and all sorts of other ways in which the state comes into our lives, enforcement by institutions beyond the police, schools, hospitals, benefits office, etc. But the police are unique amongst public services because they have a lot of tools to do this enforcing: intelligence-gathering, surveillance, arrest detainment, and particularly stop and search. And stop and search has been quite contentious as a strategy because of its disproportionality in Black communities.

But stop and search is also contentious because it doesn't really work, and because it doesn't work, we have to ask well, why do they use it? Because the government said so. In 2016 there was a really interesting study on stop and searches through use of Section 60, where police can stop and search people without suspicion that a crime is taking place. They can stop you for any reason. Obviously Black people were disproportionately stopped. They use Section 60's across London for the three years, prior to the 2011 riots. So from 2008 to 2011, the police had Section 60's across London day and night, stopping people relentlessly. And the government's own 2016 report on this period said that there was no significant impact of the increase in stop and search on crime. And in fact, the thing that affected crime rates most was the weather. There was more crime in the summer, than crime in the winter. So, this raises the question, why are the police empowered with these tools? And why do they specifically seem to use them against the Black community?

There's a recent report that was written by the U.K. Drug and Policy Commission and their research suggests that particularly Class A drug use is disproportionately used amongst white populations in compared to the Black population. The terms of Class A, Class B Class C, the rationalization behind this is it's about harm. We have these classifications because Class A is the most dangerous substance type, Class B is in the middle, Class C is less dangerous than B's and A's.  If this is true, then by the state's own rationalization, you would expect policing to be more targeted in the white community. And even recently a report done by the Guardian suggesting that cocaine was found all over Parliament, but the police aren't there; there is no linear line between policing and the actual use of drugs in society.

I think it's really important to think about the police and policing as about social control and not harm reduction and how this intermingles will race is really important. Cedric Robinson said that race becomes largely the rationalization for domination, exploitation, and extermination of specifically non-European people; non-European because it was in these places that we had our colonies where we took labour for slavery from. And you can see this playing out today, even though we no longer have colonies outside of the nation; we still have colonies within the nation. You can see how this plays out with questions like knife crime, for example, which is correlated not with race, but solvable social political and economic problems. Mental health, domestic violence in the family, education and lack of educational opportunities, lack of job opportunities and poverty. And yet this idea of rampant drug use, rampant drug dealing, rampant lack of morality in Black families is reinvigorated as a racial stereotype to shift responsibility for violence away from the state and solvable social problems to Black families. So it's in this way that drug policy itself becomes a tool in which to enforce social control through race.

We often have this idea that as progressives, we need to grow the state. Our struggles for racial equality, for gender equality, sexual equality, should result in leaving our mark on the state through legislation, we need more legislation to protect us. But actually, I want to argue the law and policy is a tool of domination as Cedric spoke of in and of itself. And actually, we should be looking to get rid of these things to shrink the state, to shrink the state's use of law and policy as a tool of domination. And that means building a society that prioritises people and not prioritise power.


Imani Mason Jordan

I want to ask a slightly challenging question to both of you just to think about how we translate that theory and that knowledge into action today. A lot of the people listening will be interested in reforming drug policy, not necessarily reforming the police. Both of you have such a detailed understanding of state policy – so how do we use that to do exactly what you're saying? To think about a way of shrinking the power that the state have over us, rather than adding again and again, more layers of legislation, bureaucracy or domination when it comes to drug policy specifically and in our relationship to the state. So that's one question I have.

And then also one that I've been asked before that, I found very difficult to answer. It concerns this concept of rolling back or shrinking the state, and thinking about the way in which we, as people invested in a kind of abolition interested in reducing the role of the state in our lives. We have to be cognizant too of extremely right-wing organising principles or strategies that are also based on rolling back the state. Just this week, Boris Johnson spoke about shrinking the state. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, either of you?

Shanice McBean

I'll be happy to jump in on the second question, because I've been thinking about it quite a lot, and it's quite an ideological question. So, one of the narratives of the right, is this idea of shrinking the state because then the state would have less control over our lives and we can therefore be free to pursue the logics of free market capitalism. We can go out and you know, run businesses and essentially do what we like. And the idea is that regulation is a hindrance to that individual freedom. And one of the ironies of this is that Thatcher was one of the great expanders of state, The state has hugely expanded since Thatcher and under every government, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even Boris Johnson, like the 452 new laws brought in around COVID under him.

This idea that conservatism is about shrinking the state is an ideological one because what they're about is bolstering the state to make it harder for us as ordinary people to navigate it. For example, during COVID lockdowns, through the rampant stops and searches and fines under COVID there was this idea that the police just didn't quite understand the new legislation, that's why they made all these errors and mistakes. Similarly with immigration law as well, there are so many laws, and new laws around citizenship and immigration, it can be hard for people even working in these fields to understand what the lay of the land is. And this is really deliberate. It's intended to obscure power.

And so I think yeah, there's a need to reconceptualise the role of the state for people who want a more liberated future and break out of this binary of More State versus Less State, and actually ask what the function of state power or its resources is. In my ideal world, I'm not so fussed about how much I'm getting taxed, but I am fussed about how much power institutions have over people's lives, and I guess that's the difference between a left-wing and right-wing, if you want to use that binary.

Gracie Bradley

I was drawn to your second question. I mean, obviously, having been Director of Liberty through a pandemic, this is the line that I have had to have my eyes trained on so closely for a long time because there have been such massive overreaches in state power. This is a very light political philosophy nerd point, but it's not that conservatives they want a minimal state, but I mean, they love Robert Nozick, right? So actually, they're about the minimal state. They're basically like the state can just enforce threats to liberty, life, contract, property… it's very different to the more progressive criticisms of state power during the pandemic that we try to advance. They're happy with the hostile environment, but they just don't want the COVID enforcement, right? Because it's about who gets to be protected and who doesn't. It's about who's viewed as a legitimate subject and who's not.

I have to say, I think I'm just still very ambivalent about the state generally, you know, Luke de Noronha and I've been working on Against Borders: The Case for Abolition and we never really got to that end of that question throughout the whole book. I mean, the nation-state should go, sure. But how do we organise caring for one another? And especially when that care might be, you know, really for very distant others, right? Not limited to just those near us on this tiny island. I think it's a really challenging question. I guess that the point is that abolition is about making certain practices and certain state practices obsolete. I think the really important thing there is that we're supposed to figure out new ways of relating to one another, and new ways of caring for one another.

Imani Mason Jordan

What I've heard in both of your responses is that there's something around this neoliberal ideology of “shrinking the state” is preoccupied with individual freedoms, versus a collective understanding of the people versus the state. So I don't want the state to do something to me that is not what I want, but I want it to provide a particular kind of "safety" for me as an individual. Safety is really like a stand-in for the ability to weaponise the state against specific people, or against something that causes me anywhere from mild discomfort to actual harm. It’s the idea that the state works for my individual interests.


Question: In recent years, several police forces in Britain have started to co-opt the language of harm reduction to support diversion programs, carry naloxone or be involved in drug checking. Is there a role for the police in harm reduction?

Imani Mason Jordan

Just to caveat that in a lot of places where there is currently some really important harm reduction work going on, it is the police actors that actually are much more willing to be involved in this shift in practices versus, changing the law for example. It is much easier for advocates to get a police force to change their tactics, then it is to get a law to be changed. And so there's been this really uneasy relationship between harm reduction organisers and local police forces, because in some ways they've been the only state actors who have actually been wanting to involve themselves in the conversation and practice of change. Of course, I'm very suspect of this.

Shanice McBean

I don't mean to be facetious, but there is a role for police in harm reduction, and that's making themselves obsolete. Anyone is allowed by law to use Naloxone if it’s to save a life. I think that fact points to something really important about the already existing obsoleteness of policing, which is that we could do a much better job at their own stated aims.

So to give you an example, the first person who often hears or observes domestic abuse taking place is a neighbour. What would it look like if we lived in a society where neighbours took an approach of care, were trained, supported, and have the resources to be able to support people in their local community who are experiencing violence of some kind? The first people who sees someone collapse with cardiac arrest on the street is a citizen, not a paramedic who gets there on time. So what does it look like to actually empower communities, to give them the resources needed to protect each other from harm? It should be the case that everyone has Naloxone so when they're walking down the street, if any time they run into someone who's having an opiate overdose, they can administer it. These aren't things that we have to rely on the police for.

When you actually look at the roots of harm, they have social, political and economic causes that we could address differently in society. And who is it every time we try to change the world, who prevents us from doing so? It's the cops. The miners' strike, the uprisings in Black communities, uprisings in colonies, Black Lives Matter protests, anti-austerity protests, student protests. Who is preventing us from ushering in a new reality, where we could actually prevent these harms from taking place? It's always the cops. So to be frank, the best thing that they could do to reduce harm in societies to make themselves obsolete.

Gracie Bradley

One of the things that we haven't touched on is just this concept of non-reformist reforms.

I think it's really important to be clear that abolition is a lot more than non-reformist reforms. It’s not reducible to non-reformist reforms, but there are reforms and other changes that we can pursue here and now that will bring us closer to that world that we want to see, or that at least will not make it more difficult for us to get there, versus those reforms that promise us some kind of change that is actually just going to reinforce and kind of consolidate the system we want to get rid of.

I think that the resource question is really integral and, and that's partly why the police want a role in harm reduction, right? Because it often means more resources for the police. So, a really key way of thinking whether a reform is going to be helpful or not is just thinking through, who's the money going to? Who’s getting the resources? To the people who are most affected by these state practices? Is it going to organisations? Thinking about where the resources are going is very important. Thinking about whether it's adding more tools and tactics to the police's arsenal is also important. Which one do I think would do the least harm, would open the way to that different world?

Imani Mason Jordan

Thank you so much. Drug policy reform actually has a long history of advocating to redistribute funds away from criminalisation towards public health. But it’s quite easy to actually look at the calls for resource redistribution and the removal of policing from drug possession laws and call it defunding the police. The notoriety or supposed radicality of that is somehow uncomfortable in policy spaces, but this redistribution or reallocation of funds away from criminalisation includes things like exploring de facto decriminalisation instead of police diversion schemes.

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