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Race, the Law and the War on Drugs

Research reflects on UK drug policy, its impact on marginalised communities and considers ways to empower those most affected by drug criminalisation.

This is an image from a law court

Dr Kojo Koram, Lecturer in the School of Law, has long understood the intersection between race and the law. Having worked for two years providing frontline legal advice for Release, the UK’s centre of expertise on drugs, the law and human rights, he’s observed the intimate connection between drug laws and their negative impact on a disproportionate number of people from countries and communities that were historically oppressed under colonialism at both the domestic and international level. 

It’s an issue that his research has highlighted is a part of the British legal landscape and the social injustice that exists for Black people and other marginalised groups. It is also something that he is fervently seeking to address. 

“The tradition of a critical approach to the study of law that has been developed at Birkbeck has provided the ideal environment for me to develop my research in how histories of race and empire continue to inform our contemporary drug laws. ”

This is a  photo of a prison

The research, presently in its first year, includes looking at how Britain’s imperial history informs the current political and economic climate and establishes a community-focused educational project that will bring together drug policy experts, racial justice activists and leading community organisers from across the UK to discuss and respond to the issues surrounding the impact of the War on Drugs on Black people. 

The project ties directly into Birkbeck’s mission of supporting people to change their lives through education and opportunity. Birkbeck has a long history of providing education and learning opportunities to people who might not otherwise be able to access them, helping to build their confidence and skills to achieve their potential. The project workshops are designed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, share experiences, and educate community leaders empowering them to engage and participate in influencing UK drug policy.  

Dr Koram teaches multiple degree modules within the School of Law, and his work draws upon a wide array of scholarly traditions including decolonial theory, critical legal theory, historical materialism, and largely revolves around the relationship between drug policy and race. He says, "The tradition of a critical approach to the study of law that has been developed at Birkbeck has provided the ideal environment for me to develop my research in how histories of race and empire continue to inform our contemporary drug laws." Dr Koram has published widely in the area of race and law, imperial history and drug policy, in both academic and general media publications, including an edited collection released last year called 'The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line'.

Through his research on the War on Drugs and Race, he aims to help some of the communities that have been most negatively impacted by drug criminalisation. With a greater understanding of the dynamics at play, Black people in the UK who have been disproportionately arrested and imprisoned as a result of drug policy will be able to make their voices heard and help shape future reform in this area of law.

Did you know?

▪ War on Drugs is a global campaign, rooted in US government policy, which seeks to reduce the illegal drug trade in its respective country. The term was coined by President Richard Nixon in his message to Congress, ‘Drug Abuse, Prevention and Control’, some years before the media picked it up. 

▪ In the UK, drugs have been a source of moral panic since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act up to the current Home Office focus on the 'County Lines' crisis. The result has not been a decrease in drug use, drug addiction or even drug deaths, which have now reached the highest levels in Europe. Instead, the main result has been increased prison numbers with nearly 1 in 8 prisoners in England and Wales having been sentenced for drug offences.  

▪ Black people are convicted of cannabis possession at almost 12 times the rate of White people. 

▪ Black men are 26 times more likely to be remanded in custody than White men. 

▪ Drug policy is a huge driver of Black people’s over-representation in prison. 

▪ The experiences of and representation from Black people is severely lacking within Drug policy-making. 

Further Information

Read more about Dr Kojo Koram's book: The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, a collection of nine essays, examining the global War on Drugs.

Learn about Birkbeck's Race, Gender and Culture Research Cluster- which explores the place of sex, gender and race in the law, especially inequalities and failures of justice. 

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