Social Policy

Drug decriminalisation and the fight against racial inequality

I believe black lives must matter more in society. More than anything else, I believe that the movement can be the positive vehicle for the change needed to finally address systemic racism in the USA, around the world, and in the UK writes Marshall Tisdale.

We have a race issue. And I say “we” because I claim those race issues as being a problem that every Briton must admit and address: whether it is between individuals or racism perpetuated by the systems we live in, it exists.

Our race problem may not be as big as it is in the United States, but we must all remember that less racism is still racism.  Recent events in London – with violent clashes between far-right thugs – show that Britons protesting the systematic racism of the USA and the UK has caused those racial tensions to bubble to the surface. Sticking one’s head into the sand isn’t an option anymore.

We should all be saying ’black lives matter’. We, as proud proponents of equality, should stand in solidarity with the movement’s aims to vanquish the prejudices that are built into society.

Indeed, society cannot be truly fair until direct and indirect discrimination ceases to be.

And the facts show that to be black in the United Kingdom is to live at a disadvantage: black people are 9.5 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people; black people are four times more likely to experience excessive force; BAME people are twice as likely to die in police custody;  to name just a few examples.

Does that paint a picture of a black British experience that is comparable to the white British experience? No, it does not. And yet, the lack of outrage from people in our society is overwhelmingly concerning. Many would prefer to express their anger at peaceful demonstrations of anti-racism (public gatherings, non-violent toppling of status, or acts of solidarity), rather than direct it towards a system in the United Kingdom that exacerbates and perpetuates societal racism.

And I condemn the response from others.

In order to stop these demonstrations that risk contributing to another potential Coronavirus peak, we must place the burden on our country to change. Change through constructive policy to address indirect and direct bias in our institutions. Change through a reflection of how we, as a united country, approach our bold British culture and distinct history. There should be no pussyfooting around it. The United Kingdom must change in order to unlock its potential as a truly free society where all Britons live free of unique oppression.

I will not pretend that I have the answer to systemic racism, or that I have the experience to truly understand being black in Britain and the difficulties wrought by that. Even so, there is no one person that holds all the answers. We see this from divisions in the US BLM movement, with calls for both progressive incremental change and outright police force abolition.

However, what we must do as conservatives, who value facts and logical discourse above all, is engage with the facts, black communities, and experts to understand how best to tackle this national scandal.

Now, no scandal has one solution. Scandals, in fact, tend to have two primary solutions: resolve the current scandal to negate further fallout; and prevent it from happening again.

With Boris Johnson’s official recorded statement on George Floyd encapsulating the anger of black communities, and white Britons demonstrating in support of  the protests, tempered with the request for caution on the heels of COVID-19, I would argue that this is the first step in addressing the national scandal: recognising there is an issue to begin with.

Then, it falls upon us to tackle the l scandal with a series of reforms and policy programmes that will help reduce racial inequality in this country, as well as change how the British people have approached our bold culture and history to support modern racial historical discourse.

One example of a policy area the Conservative party could tackle to reduce racial inequality is drug reform; two words that shake social conservatives, but also many liberal conservatives, to their very core. Rightly so, as it is not a policy area that is easily approached without massive societal repercussions. But I am not here to champion radical policy reform like total legalisation of all drugs; no, I instead point the Conservative Party to the much-needed step in correcting the racially biased policing of our drug laws.

Any logically inclined conservative would argue that those who commit more crimes are more likely to be arrested for those crimes. Simple. Race does not come into policing. However, evidence would suggest otherwise. There is no evidence that black or Asian individuals use drugs at a higher rate than white people in the UK, yet both are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug possession.

The logical point here is that being arrested in greater amounts does not mean that they are more likely to commit these crimes, but rather means that they’re more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug possession than white people. This can be attributed to such factors, including  stop and search laws, where simply being in an area gives grounds to police officers to initiate stop and search. Combine that with the fact that higher proportions of BAME people live in deprived areas of London, and suddenly Britain has the perfect storm for racial bias in drug policing.

Now, I reject ‘stop and search’ reforms as a method to reduce police bias because ‘stop and search’ is there to ensure the police are successful in operations. Until we reduce the concentration of BAME individuals in deprived areas of London and other cities, it will not be effective. Instead, I suggest we remove cannabis from the equation entirely through legalisation and that we decriminalise possession of all other classes of drugs. Legalise and decriminalise.

Now, before you discredit me entirely, look at my rationale: by legalising cannabis and decriminalising possession of all other classes of drugs, we would see the end of BAME people sentenced for possession alone after the disproportionate utilisation of stop and search against BAME individuals in deprived areas they reside in. decriminalization would save money by reducing prison costs and population size, freeing up law enforcement resources to be invested in other ways, thus fixing this area of policing and funding.

More importantly, if the government were to legalise and regulate the sale of marijuana, then you remove the need for a black-market supplier. Thus, putting a chokehold on the black market and organised criminals as they are hard put to compete with the regulatory powers of the state and the initiative of legitimate businesses. We, as conservatives, principally support the initiative of legitimate businesses above all else, whilst the fact that we’d also be cracking down on organised crime is an upside. Taxation too is a great advantage to legalisation and decriminalisation, along with supporting legal business and reducing racially biased policing.

On top of this, I would argue there is room to further correct the racial injustices in the British system by helping those communities disproportionately incarcerated for drug possession by giving them priority in gaining licenses to sell legalised cannabis/THC products. Thus, retrospectively righting the wrongs of our criminal justice system and allowing equity for a brief period before moving to complete equality of opportunity in the marijuana market.

Through legalisation and decriminalisation, we, as conservatives, are sending a message that where society once deprived you, the Conservative Party will give you the tools to succeed as equal Britons in our free capitalist society. However, legalisation and decriminalisation are not enough to quell the tide of racism in our country. It only targets the issue of law enforcement and not the fact that Britain has a dangerous relationship with its history and culture.

As a country, we need to start accepting that you can be simultaneously proud of this country whilst also recognising that it has been responsible for some of the very worst of human history. Despite this fact, our media, our political establishment and our education system does not facilitate extensive historical criticism of figures and events from the past.

Take Winston Churchill. He is a war hero, no doubt about it, but he was also complicit in the Bengali Famine that claimed up to four million lives. These are not mutually exclusive facts, and yet he has a bubble protecting him, manufactured by the media and political establishment, whilst being supported by educational institutions. Suddenly he is shielded from legitimate criticism with those critics being labelled unpatriotic. Except this isn’t sudden and has been happening for many years.

Self-proclaimed British guardians of history that task themselves with the duty of ‘preventing the erasure of history’ are the problem here. They defend complex historical figures blindly to support a glorious view of Britannia. And whilst I am patriotic, I am also a historian.These individuals are rejecting legitimate historical reflection. There is no doubt about that. They act as if history is static, as if we are not allowed to alter our perceptions of moral goods and evils retrospectively; almost as if no further analysis of our history and its characters are warranted.


History is constantly changing, especially how we view it. To deny the bad of our history within the mainstream historical debate is to deny the process of history altogether. We are a proud nation. Our country has been through a lot. But we mustn’t be proud to the point where we are afraid to admit our country has been wrong before; wrong for perpetuating warped storytelling of our country and wrong for shutting down historical discussion and reflection.

We, as proud British people, want to avoid embarrassment when flying our country’s colours proudly. Making it easier to sweep the three-dimensionality of our heroes under the carpet. Casually forgetting the impact, they have had on black British or Asian people. I say though, there should be no embarrassment on our part. There is no shame in admitting our country’s faults, and no shame in wanting to do better. We should champion introducing historical reflection into the mainstream as it allows for the improvement of the country’s historical discourse, which can translate into an improvement in how we conduct our politics.

We must take the good and the bad of our British figures and be candid about the complexity of the individuals we have previously held above reproach. In my opinion, it is not unpatriotic to be critical of our history and culture, to effectively demand better than what our country has done. No, it is patriotic to wish to see our country improve by ridding ourselves of our society’s racial biases and ending the rose-tinted retelling of our history which has held back a positive national dialogue on British racism for far too long.

The fact that protesters are gathering in the streets of our capital during a terrifying pandemic that is disproportionately affecting them to decry American and British racism is a national scandal. We must do better, and part of doing better is us, as conservatives, accepting change through unconventional means to achieve a freer society of total equality of opportunity.

Marshall Tisdale is a final year History and Politics student at Cardiff University and a former Secretary of Cardiff University Conservative Association.