Towards an Abolitionist Drug Policy Reform

Drugs policing is driving mass criminalisation and incarceration in the UK and beyond. As of March 2019, there are 82,847 people in prison in England and Wales, of which 11,015 were sentenced for drug offences. A further 1,738 people are remanded in custody for drug offences.

Recent research from StopWatch and Release highlights that the unequal and disproportionate enforcement of drug laws is “a source of profound racial injustice” in England and Wales: Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at more than nine times the rate of white people in 2016/17, prosecuted for drug offences at more than eight times the rate of white people in 2017, and comprised a quarter of those convicted of cannabis possession, despite making up less than four per cent of the population.

The War on Drugs is thus upheld through punishment, imprisonment, policing, and surveillance. This phenomenon, and the overlapping interests of government and industry, has been referred to by many researchers and activists as the Prison Industrial Complex, or PIC. The PIC is described by Empty Cages Collective as the “mutually reinforcing web of relationships, between […] prisons, the probation service, the police, the courts, all the companies that profit from transporting, feeding and exploiting prisoners”.

“Through its reach and impact”, writes US-based organisation Critical Resistance, “the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant”.

Drug policy, law enforcement, and racial and social injustice are impossible to understand as distinct issues. The work of integrated analysis of punitive drug policy and its harms must result in integrated solutions, taking into account the broader struggle against the continuation of the PIC. This vision, which seeks to eliminate imprisonment, policing, and surveillance, creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment, is understood as abolition, or PIC abolition.

Ru Kaur and Ali Tamlit write that: “building towards something new must be shaped by principles of transformative justice – where we acknowledge harm but challenge the ‘common sense’ way in which punitive punishment is presented as the only option for justice. Through this transformative justice, meaningful accountability is prioritised. A common refrain from those who doubt transformative justice is to ask where we will put perpetrators of extreme violence, or murder, if not in prison. These are challenging questions that we must face, but we know that the current system already fails survivors of violence. A politics of abolition demands changing everything about our present and doing so in ways that protect the needs of the most vulnerable. This will help us move closer to something that truly represents justice – rather than the current system, which kills and harms the most vulnerable.”

Abolition is thus a long-term goal and an everyday practice, an organisational vision, and an individual commitment to transformation. Third sector organisations can often suffer from short-term insights that result in the siloing of issues, structured by (competitive) funding opportunities, budget restraints, and lowest common denominator recommendations that seek to garner support from the most stakeholders, rather than the right stakeholders.

Building alliances with organisations that share long-term goals for prison abolition and alternative solutions for addressing harm, such as Bent Bars, Empty Cages Collective, Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) - to name a few in the UK - are important steps towards building a vision for abolitionist drug policy reform. Policy recommendations and organisational goals should centre those who are most egregiously affected by drugs prohibition as a result of the PIC, and must never reinforce the PIC itself.

There are many drug policy reformers who are already doing this work; the principles of harm reduction, for example, share some of the basic philosophies of abolition inasmuch as they advocate for care over punishment. Abolitionist drug policy reform requires consistent reflection and creative strategy.

The following questions from Critical Resistance LA cited in the 2015 book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, are helpful: Does your work seek to make the PIC a less workable solution to problems? Does your work take on aspects of the PIC that are most harmful? Do you work to fight forms of harm like white supremacy, heterosexism and class prejudice, both in your campaigns and within your group? Does your immediate work make future challenges to the PIC possible?