Side event: Women in law enforcement and drug policy – it’s a feminist issue

Suzanne Sharkey: Its 2023 and last month a male friend said to me women in western society have equality they are 50% of the population after all  – Oh how I laughed and how he regretted the question – but it’s not his fault that is what he has seen and he has learnt – he is (or was ) unaware of the depths of how still in 2023 we live in a gender biased society. I too was unaware of the enormity of the gender bias until I began my journey in recovery and activism in drug policy reform. Globally 75% of unpaid work is done by women. We are the backbone of society that holds families and communities together and it is literally killing us. Let me give a few examples to set the scene. Women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% moderately injured in car accidents. In the medical profession women go undiagnosed for medical conditions far longer than men and  women are more likely to be prescribed sedatives or anti-depressants than appropriate pain relief. AI that has been brought into the medical sphere to assist diagnosis, and be an obvious benefit we would assume could easily be gender neutral isn’t. There is not the acknowledgement of the chronic gaps in medical data when it comes to women – medical data being heavily skewed to the male body AI could make diagnosis worse rather than better for women. 76% of our health care workers in UK are women and did not have correctly fitted PPE throughout Covid it turns out masks and unisex PPE is based on the average male  – because most research and data collated is based on the average male. Seeing men as the human default is still deeply embedded in the structure of human society – there is a shocking life threatening lack of sex disaggregated data

So where is drug policy in all this – One of the most discriminating policies in the world especially for women. When drug treaties state we are ‘Working together for the health and welfare of humankind’ it means men and Drug policy disproportionately affect women and are entrenched in patriarchy and sexist ideologies.In my life time I have been sexually assaulted, discriminated against, bullied and been treated less than the butt of sexist jokes or banter – and that was before I joined the police. When I joined the police there were few police women, I was young naive and keen to prove my worth. I wanted to be accepted, approved of to be part of the team the institution, in order to do that I had to man up, do what I was told shut up and get on with it. I was taught how to police my community by other police men –– and adopted their ways of doing things and & this included targeting people from where they came from what they were wearing what they looked like. I didn’t just put on the uniform I mentally armoured up –I was taught to toughen up and to show vulnerability was a weakness What I can now see clearly as an environment that bred toxic masculinity and this is still evident in front line services. I am not proud of this but I couldn’t speak out I had to conform to fit in and so I did what many women do and self silenced. I saw woman who had spoken out against what they saw as wrong or unjust and they were labelled the awkward ones the ones to watch out for or difficult to work with. 

I remember being punished because I wasn’t arresting enough people and my punishment was a week of foot patrol on late shift on my own. This type of policing created an unhealthy environment and one of “them and us” not just in the communities we served but in the police service itself. I didn’t speak up when I should have what I now can clearly see as racism, sexism, misogyny and a system of policing that divides communities. I can now clearly see that how we police drug law enforcement compounds the problem. I absolutely fulfilled that role of a women who knew her place – Oh its different now hindsights a marvellous thing and I wish I had done a lot of things differently I wish I had used my voice more, stood up to work colleagues and had the self-belief that I have today – that my lived experience and perspective matters. But I was brought up in a hugely sexist culture, and my time in the police reinforced this and like to think it’s so much better now and on an individual basis it is, but globally? No and its not good enough. What if the war on drugs isn’t failing at all? What if we looked at it as a well-oiled machine to support and maintain state power, to sustain a system of patriarchy, support capitalist growth, social inequality to keep society divided to keep communities in their place to punish those most vulnerable in our societies to reproduce harms its actually working. Through this lens we can see it is an outstanding success, so the systems in place are not broken they have been made that way by people in power for the privileged few at the cost of many, in particular women. All people who use drugs face extreme stigma and discrimination, but women are often more likely than men to be severely vilified. Especially if they use problematically. 

The criminalization of people who use drugs has a disproportionate impact on women , particularly those who are poor, socially deprived  or  belong to racial and ethnic minorities, even more so if as a women you use problematically – I have experienced this first hand when I was in the depths of addiction at the time I did not know what was wrong with me What I did know was that society judged me, stigmatised me made me feel more ashamed, it told me I was a bad person especially as a mother who could not stop even for my children. 

It was the dominant ideology of patriarchy, it was what I was brought up to believe, the overarching view of what a womens role is in society that kept me in the shadows and the illness longer.  And who are we actually locking up and what are we punishing exactly? Men are almost always at the head of organised crime gangs and major drug operations , and yet the rate of imprisonment of women has far outpaced that of men. A global penal reform report shows women and girls in prison has increased by 50% since the start of the century. And it isn’t a result of an increase of criminal activities but harsher drug policies. Most women I would say should not be in prison and victims of the illicit drug trade, they have been exploited because they are women and women are easily exploited. The prosecution of women rarely takes into account the reasons why – their lived experience or perspective – that a woman who acts as a drug mule because she has been coerced by a partner do so, or been kidnapped and raped if she refuses, threats made to family members and blackmailed let alone the lack or mainstream livelihood, or live in extreme poverty. Sexual offences that occur in the drug trade go unreported – whether that is in the supply or demand market how would they report? And to whom and what would be done? Especially if you are a woman who uses drugs and even more so if you use problematically – Women are systematically sexually assaulted when acquiring drugs. One benefit of prohibition I see for women is the dark web making it safer for women to obtain drugs and could be championed as a method of harm reduction, keeping women safer and reducing the opportunity for sexual assaults to occur, rather than hunted down and dismantled. What I have learnt is that the policing and enforcement of drug laws is part of the well-oiled machine.  It is part of the problem not the solution If we continue to police with the aim of reducing the supply and demand of drugs all we will continue to see more harms, more violence, more discrimination, more people criminalised more people in prison and women will pay the highest price.  You know that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I think drug law enforcement fits that perfectly. The paper The impact of drug policy on women states and recommends …“Less punitive laws for minor and non-violent drug infractions are the best single means of reducing incarceration of women”. A solution – I say radical but where I see the evidence clearly pointing to is to end the criminalisation of all people who use drugs. and We need to call for a fully regulated market of all drugs because this would indeed make the biggest impact towards reducing the past harms of the last 60 years and especially in terms of the multitude of harms and inequalities women who use drugs continue to face. In order to create a sustainable change we have to radically reform the system – this cannot be done by simply changing the people leading it or rewriting the manual or by simply adding more women if those women like me in order to succeed that have to conform to the systems in place, we just reproduce a larger work force with the same harmful outcomes to the Police service and communities they serve. This is only a snap shot of what I see – if you want to learn more read this book and as it says. “Drug policy is a feminist issue – it is the driver of injustice, discrimination, stigmatisation of many women” and reform needs women represented with all their lived (& living) experience and, spaces created for affected women to talk and be listened to and heard – for female lives and perspectives to be brought out of the shadows – to the benefit of everyone – if women are involved then they do not get forgotten.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery I have is self worth – to love myself as I am not what society thinks I should be to embrace my imperfections  – I am worthy I have earned my place at the table, my experiences have meaning I have a voice and the privilege of being able to use it. Today I would make a much better police officer, and that is down to the skills I have learnt in recovery, those traits that as an active police officer I had to crush to fit in – the 

To connect to individuals where they are at and not where I think (my moral judgement) they should be. To be vulnerable and courageous, to be more compassionate, show empathy and understanding to listen and hear what is actually being said, patience, tolerance to be more kind – people may roll their eyes when I say this and I don’t really care but we need more love ( as well as sex disaggregated data) we need to be kinder to each other.

Debbie King: I joined Leap UK in 2016 but this is the first time I’ve shared by story publicly so please bear with me. I speak today wearing two hats – that of a retired police Detective Inspector and that of a mother and grandmother affected by the current drug policy in the UK. I’m unfortunately for me in a unique position having seen our drugs laws from two very different perspectives. I shall try to cram 20 years in to around 6  minutes… When I joined the police in 2001, I formed the same views as every other police officer I knew that the Misuse of Drugs Act was a great piece of legislation and that drug misuse was a scourge on communities that we needed to tackle by  arresting and removing these people from society to keep us all safe . I learned that Heroin misuse especially lead to crime to fund its use. I looked down on addicts and saw them as choosing this lifestyle. I  want to say that I’m ashamed I ever held that viewpoint. Around 2003 I discovered my youngest daughter had been smoking cannabis. I warned her of the dangers and the risk of this leading to Heroin and other class A drugs. Like any other teenager she rolled her eyes at me and told me not to be so dramatic! But of course her cannabis use did turn into Heroin use and addiction. I wish I hadn’t had to go through this lived experience in order to realise we have it all wrong, Drug addiction is a health issue and should not and cannot be dealt with effectively through the criminal justice system. I kept my daughters addiction secret at work for many years, because I was aware of the judgement and the stigma and I didn’t want her judged. She was a good person, with the kindest heart, I didn’t want her to be labelled for the rest of her life. I kept my desperation to myself. When she was 21 she had a baby boy and never touched drugs throughout her pregnancy and his first year, in fact she didn’t even eat unhealthy food during her pregnancy as it was bad for the baby. She was a model pregnant mother. Around a year after he was born though I discovered she had relapsed into heroin use again By the time my grandson was 4 we had persuaded her to go into rehab and after pushing the local authority they agreed to fund her. She didn’t want to leave her son, she adored him but they would not fund a mother and child place, so she had no choice but to leave him. He stayed with my parents during the weekdays, and I visited after work every day and had him every weekend. This was supposed to be a temporary measure for 6 months however she didn’t make it through rehab and failed to return to our home city Derby, for 2 years. By this time, I had decided to move my grandson permanently to live with me and explain my circumstances with my daughter to my boss.  Continuing to live with my parents who were in their 70’s while I was at work wasn’t fair to them or him. Two years later after 4 years of waiting and hoping my daughter would recover and be able to take her son back , I sought and was granted a Special Guardianship Order for my grandson. Id hoped that this process which took a few months would shake my daughter in to action and recovery, but sadly  it didn’t. Although work were supportive and  understanding, as my career progressed and I was promoted again, the demands upon my time and availability increased with out of hours Snr Detective responsibilities. Including call out during the night. When I was on the callout rota my parents would help out, but it became increasingly unfair on them and my then 10 year old grandson. I was capable of further promotions, but this would require  residential courses to prepare me for more senior roles. Something I couldn’t commit to with a 10 year old at home and nobody else to look after him for weeks at a time. I felt torn between the career I loved and caring for my grandson. Then in November 2018 my daughter had missed probation appointments and was sent to prison for this for 6 weeks. She received no help or counselling in prison, she wasn’t in long enough to trigger anything other than methadone which she queue up for daily. Because I was a serving police officer I couldn’t visit her as if I was recognised in the prison this would put her at significant risk. This was the final straw for me, her addiction was impacting how I felt at work as well as in my personal life. I felt helpless and desperate for change to help my daughter and others like her. I started to feel as though I worked for the enemy  and so I felt I had no choice but to retire 5 years early from the police. My last day of service was 31 December 2018 and I cried my eyes out that New Years Eve at home with my grandson tucked up safely in his bed. I then took up another full time job in the private sector. I believe my daughters behaviour and addiction became increasingly worse as she became increasingly guilt ridden and ashamed that she wasn’t raising her son as a mother should. These feelings are ever more powerful for women than men. And of course, with no responsibilities she had the freedom to sink further into addiction. I knew this could happen but I was left with no alternative given her continued drug misuse to put my grandsons welfare ahead of everything else. This still causes conflict between us. She sees me as stealing her son rather than face the reality that I was actually taking care of the thing most precious to her, her boy. Her addiction has impacted my personal life and my career and the lives of her father, her sister and grandparents who all are desperate to have her back. But despite the anger and frustration I’ve felt over the years I know that this isn’t her fault. And sandwiched  in the middle of this is my wonderful 15 year old grandson who by the way hopes to go to Sandhurst to become an army officer. I’d like you to consider why does an anorexic daughter get help, support and sympathy because she’s compelled to do something that is harmful to herself yet my daughter who uses drugs that also cause harm to herself,  is not as worthy of that response? It’s because of the Misuse of Drugs Act – that’s the only difference – they are both suffering from unresolved  issues that they treat themselves but in a way that  manifests itself quite differently. One of them is seen as ill and the other, is seen as a criminal. How is this right? There was once a round up of a large drug dealing gang in the City where  we live whilst I was still a serving police officer, the police announced its huge success all over media. I asked my daughter about the impact and she replied “we struggled for about a day, but then normal service resumed”. This isn’t success, its firefighting and we’ve been doing it for over 50 years in the UK. Drugs are easier for our young people to get hold of than alcohol – prohibition doesn’t work! As a mother my daughters feelings of guilt and shame are magnified and as her mother my opportunities are limited by the lack of proper treatment and help available for my daughter to become drug free and enjoy living and  being a mother again with proper help and support. I fear for my daughters safety every day of my life. It never leaves me. What kind of humane society throws its most vulnerable in society into the hands of serious organised criminals? We’ve turned our backs on them for too many years. Women especially are disproportionately harmed by our drug laws. I dream of a  humane society in the UK that would regulate drugs and decriminalise them. It would help those struggling with addiction issues, remove the stigma and shame and provide a safe environment to gradually recover from drug misuse. Recreational drug users would know exactly what they are getting and be educated on the dangers as we all are with Alcohol. We’d have heroin assisted treatment centres where Heroin users could have the daily  chaos and panic removed from their lives and gradually with care and compassion and dignity,  start to rebuild their lives. We would steal the drug traffickers customers and keep them safe from further harm. County lines where children are being recruited to deal drugs would reduce and disappear with nobody to deal drugs to. My only hope is that this happens in time to give us back our  clever, funny, beautiful kind daughter, sister, grand daughter and mother and the sons and daughters of thousands of other parents in the UK. 

Julia Hyland: My name is Julia Ryland and I am a former Metropolitan police officer. I worked as a Neighbourhood officer in Camden Town – a well known tourist location in inner city london – sometimes referred to by tourists as the amsterdam of London…and by police, a drugs hotspot. Now, its important to acknowledge my experiences are UK focussed, and drug laws and police procedure vary massively from country to country. But, from talking to officers internationally, I know that many share the thoughts and experiences I am going to talk about today. We, as police officers have been fighting on the front line of the war on drugs for decades…and it’s about time we started being honest about what that’s like, from a police perspective. I had to leave the police in order to speak out…serving police officers cannot actively engage in politics, and unfortunately this remains a political issue. I joined the police to protect the public and to make a positive difference – but I left the police because current UK drug policy was preventing me from doing so… Prohibitionist International Drug policies are preventing policing from embedding evidence based best practice into routine police procedure…for the rest of my time, I’m going to talk about my experiences policing Camden town…and the personal conflict I experienced between policing priorities and evidence based harm reduction. As a Neighbourhood officer in Camden Town my focus was proactive preventative activity. I had to get to know the community, understand the policing-relevant issues and build positive relationship between the community and the police. The communities main concerns were the visible drug dealing, the drug use and the drug-related anti social behaviour. The main approach I was encouraged to use by the police was stop and search and if I found drugs, I would usually make an arrest and apply a criminal sanction. The only exception to this was for cannabis where I was allowed to use an Out of Court Disposal (basically a warning) for a first-time offence.  However, after the first warning, many people caught with cannabis a second time were arrested and given a criminal record. Yet, through my personal research in this area I knew stop and search and arrest and criminalisation of possession can be incredibly damaging. The impact that a criminal conviction can have on someones life chances can be vastly more damaging than the harms caused by drug use. I also knew that police interventions very rarely dent the overall availability & supply of drugs. I also knew that most people who use drugs problematically are people who have experienced and are coping with trauma… Even though I knew these things, I had incentives to stop and search and make arrests…which I’ll come onto… The homeless community and street drug dealers (usually young cannabis dealers) occupied almost all of my time (and that of my colleagues). The drug-dealing was surprisingly visible, with very little attempt to be covert: a rotating group of the same people, standing outside the same shop, pretty much 24hrs a day. As an NPO I had to be seen to be addressing the dealers presence by the community. I chose to engage with them in a friendly, approachable non combative way. And I did the same with the homeless community. I found over time that young dealers started to give me a nod and walk away from the area upon sight and without request. Homeless substance users started to dispose of their drug paraphernalia more safely, having listened and understood my justifications. Any initial hostility stemmed from fear and uncertainty about how I would discharge my powers. Once they trusted that my decision making would be fair, reasonable, and appropriate to the circumstances, fear and hostility reduced, and cooperation and compliance improved. It was a two-way relationship – making both my job and their lives easier – and this is why neighbourhood policing works… But crucially, I had incentives to stop and search and to make arrests for drug possession: as an NPO, the most straightforward way in which my performance was assessed was the extent to which I had conducted legal stop-searches and the number of arrests I had made. Arresting someone for possession of drugs is a straightforward, routine process, that usually results in a charge and a positive impact on my personal performance measures. What this does, ultimately, is incentivise officers to reach for that low hanging fruit… drug possession arrests…for as long as police procedure encourages stop and search and arrest by measuring officer performance by these actions, police officers are not going to stop taking these actions. The interactions I had as an NPO were personal, but when I enforced drug laws against the public, it undermined not only my relationship with them but also their wider perception of authority and trust in the police. When making a decision about whether to stop-search someone, I had to balance the expectations of the job and the positive impact it could have on my own performance measures against my knowledge that it could cause harm, and undermine the wider objectives of neighbourhood policing which were supposed to be my priority. I felt uncomfortable that the ‘discretion’ I was nominally allowed, could not be discharged in a way that aligned with my knowledge of evidence-based harm reduction. To be clear, if I found a young vulnerable woman who was homeless  and in possession of class A drugs, the only option I had was arrest. This usually involved handcuffing them, putting them into the back of police van, and strip searching them on arrival in custody – an utterly degrading experience…and then I’d see them back on the street a few days later, to me that just didn’t make any sense. A time consuming and expensive investigation, case file and court hearing would follow… none of these provided any help or support to address the underlying causes of their problems – but it did use vast amounts of police time and resources that would be better spent elsewhere. Prohibition prevents the prioritisation of evidence-based, drug-related harm reduction and criminalisation causes harm to disadvantaged and vulnerable communities and stigmatises drug use in a way that does not prioritise public health. As police officers it is our job to protect the public – but drug law not only prevents us from doing so, it encourages the use of tactics that can contribute to the harm that people experience. We urgently need radical policy reform so that police officers can protect people from harm, instead of contributing to it. 

Diane Goldstein: March is a special month as it celebrates women and their role globally. I immigrated to the US on St Patrick’s Day and got hired as a police officer on St Patrick’s Day years later. March also brings grief as my older brother was criminalized because of substance use and MH issues, and died on March 18th. My work in policy reform is driven by unacceptable experiences of loved ones. Changed my trajectory from police officer to Executive Director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership. All of us here have a role in improving communities and other people’s lives. We want to acknowledge many women who could also be standing here with me, our capabilities are untapped. Not just in policing but in every field. I want to thank the many men in my professional life for guidance. The biggest roadblocks to women in leadership are placed on us by society and ourselves. Now think about how I can stand in front of an esteemed group but still have imposter syndrome and question my right to be here. There is an idea that cops hate change and the status quo impedes our ability to move policing practice into the 21st century. My organization is made up of over 300 current, former, retired law enforcement officers who believe the War on Drugs is an abject failure. Law enforcement professionals know we can no longer rely on current measures to impact drug use positively. We require paradigm shift towards evidence based practices and saving lives, linked to health. This would greatly reduce mortality and associated issues such as crime, mental illness, homelessness. When I started there were only 5 officers. When I retired I was still the only woman to obtain command position and still just 5 officers in my station. Still no more women in my rank 19 years later. My career path provided frameworks for current policy work and helped me be a better parent. Gave me strength to stand in dissent when most officers wouldn’t admit the failure. Path to leadership remains undefined and with lessons from being in male dominated culture. Felt I needed to prove myself, my standard was not proficiency, but excellency.  Instilled strength and determination to define my life. Forged my character and taught me leadership. Taught me decision making and how to bring out the best in myself and others. Good leadership can transform nations. Women have been doing this for a long time but we don’t believe in ourselves. Women think analytically and strategically, and are compassionate. Women leadership in policing, UN, and leadership across the world is crucial. We understand impact of representation. Programs impacting communities and all community stakeholders need to be heard. Need police which represent demographics of community. LEAP partnered with an initiative who recognize the value of women in policing. My organization has a goal to have 30% women in law enforcement by 2030. Law enforcement needs to represent the diversity of the community that improves health and safety, improves public trust, enhances trust and support. Connect with police chiefs across the world to mentor and hire women. Need to change police culture for diversity. Change how we hire people of colour and women. Create opportunities for leadership to benefit department and communities. Prioritize changes in policy to move to actual justice system. Rely on evidenced based policy to make communities safer and healthier. Policing is honour to serve others. This is not just women’s issue, need to reimagine who police actually are. 

Question Steve Rolles: I had a friend who was arrested for buying cannabis and the police were almost apologetic, they had no enthusiasm. The officer asked how much he paid, my friend said £20 and the officer said it was only worth £10. He had this conversation with police that this was all a bit futile, arresting people and having crackdowns but just moving to the next street over. There is a disconnect between knowledge of police and what they were doing is not just pointless but actively harmful. Target driven culture underpins it all. 

Response: Almost all cops think the same but can’t really say that. Problem isn’t police but policy.

Steve: How do we get police to admit they are political?

Response: Need to talk to people who are able to say this, what we are saying isn’t political. 

Second response: What we hear in the US is the cliche that we don’t make law, we enforce it. I find this hypocritical. Law enforcement in the US is very political because of unions etc. Police weigh in on bills which go back to legislatures and staffers. No politician will deny a phone call from the police chief to propose legislation. Law enforcement actually should be less political. Outside the military we are the only people enforcing state sanctioned violence. Problems caused by initial contact from smelling cannabis etc. Still in laws to create drug free America. Need to allow to stand publicly ad dissent in a way to improve how to serve communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *