The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is hoping to introduce a scheme that would enable young people to avoid getting arrested for possessing small amounts of cannabis—a move that’s being opposed by the United Kingdom’s two biggest political parties.
The proposed trial, yet to be approved by City Hall, will involve three of London’s 32 boroughs. Under the scheme, people aged 18-24 who are caught with small quantities of cannabis will be offered counseling and drug education classes, instead of being arrested.
Expressing concern over Mayor Khan’s plans, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, said: “We have absolutely no intention of decriminalizing dangerous and harmful substances for recreational use. Decriminalization would leave organized criminals in control, while risking an increase in drug use, which drives crime and violence which blights our streets.”
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, to which Khan also belongs, seemed more open-minded about the scheme, saying he would “look at” the proposed pilot. However, he broadly supported the government’s stance: “I’m not in favor of us changing the law or decriminalization. I’m very clear about that.”
“There is a frustrating amount of political gamesmanship swirling around this debate.”
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform, a UK think tank that advocates for drug policy reform, told Filter that the government’s hostility was perplexing, considering that 10 UK police authorities already have similar schemes. He also pointed out that similar diversion programs, for all drugs, are actually in the government’s new drug strategy launched at the end of last year.
“There is a frustrating amount of political gamesmanship swirling around this debate,” Rolles said, “with the mayor’s political opponents using this as an opportunity to attack him as ‘soft on drugs and crime’ even while they are backing identical policies—that are widely acknowledged to be a progressive and evidence-based move.”
“It was also disappointing to see Khan’s own party leader, Keir Starmer, disavow the policy,” he added, “given that he has supported it previously.”
A spokesperson for the mayor of London issued a statement defending the scheme against those “soft on crime” allegations. “Reducing crime is the Mayor’s top priority and he will continue to explore and implement the most effective solutions to help to divert young people away from drug use and crime for good,” he said, adding that the proposal “does not mean that the Mayor is moving to decriminalize cannabis”—something that only the national government has the formal power to do.
The Mayor’s office also stated on January 4 that the limited pilot scheme would be subject to a thorough evaluation process before roll-out, without elaborating on timing.
London’s size and status mean it will always draw political attention. But the mayor’s spokesperson made clear that the proposed scheme is nothing new, being essentially a narrower version of what he described as the “successful Thames Valley Model which won a national award last year.”
That model, implemented in a region of South East England just outside London, similarly offers counseling and classes, including access to harm reduction materials, as an alternative to arrest and criminalization. Unlike the London proposal, it’s open to all age groups and is applied to low-level possession of any illicit drugs, besides other low-level charges. The reported completion rate for the six-week youth course is over 80 percent, and 98 percent of participants are not referred to courts.
Reducing arrests is clearly welcome, but such a model remains far from ideal. In the case of the London proposal, it is limited by age and by drug. Its prescription of classes “or else” is coercive. And the notion that all cannabis use by young people, for example—the vast majority of which presents no problems at all—requires “education” as a corrective measure is absurd.
“I’d rather take the arrest and caution.”
These problems are not lost on some young Brits who use cannabis. One man, who requested anonymity, was arrested for cannabis possession at the age of 24; he told Filter that “I’d rather take the arrest and caution” than undergo weeks of classes.
A caution, which is typically issued for small-scale drug possession and other minor law violations in the UK, means that you admit an offense but receive no further sanctions. It isn’t a conviction, but it goes on your record and could be used as evidence of “bad character” if you’re later charged with something else.
The man said that in his experience, an arrest and caution only take a few hours, whereas counseling and classes would be “inconvenient and time-consuming.”
“At that age, the classes won’t work,” he added. “People who smoke it do not think it’s harmful, so won’t be ‘converted.’”
“We need our prime minister to recognize that his rationale for opposing decriminalization is nonsensical.”
Unlike most politicians, Dr. Laura Garius, the policy lead for Release, the national center of expertise on drugs and drug laws, cautiously welcomes Khan’s proposal. It represents “a small step in the right direction,” she told Filter, adding that the “punitive approach to drug use in the UK is failing.” But she noted the very limited nature of the scheme—and would like to see it expanded to all drugs, to people of all ages, and beyond just three London boroughs.
Responding directly to the government’s stance, Dr. Garius said: “We need our prime minister to recognize that his rationale for opposing decriminalization is nonsensical, given that our current approach already leaves ‘organized criminals’ in control, yet leaves us without any of the globally evidenced benefits of drug decriminalization.”
Rolles echoed Garius’s disappointment. He concluded that while British public opinion is “decisively shifting in favor of cannabis reforms,” the two main party leaders “seem caught in some sort of retro arms race of ‘tough on drugs’ populist posturing.”
Photograph of the new location of London’s City Hall by Matt Buck via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0