Sadiq Khan drug ‘decriminalisation’ plan ‘does not go far enough’, say experts

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Sadiq Khan’s proposed plan to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis in three London boroughs “does not go far enough”, according to experts.

It was reported this week that the Mayor of London is considering a new pilot scheme in the boroughs of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley that would see any under-25s caught with small amounts of cannabis redirected to education or counselling services instead of facing arrest.

The plan has been met with backlash from members of the Conservative party and may also face opposition from Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer who has previously said he is not in favour of decriminalising drugs in England.

Experts in the fields of criminal justice and public health have welcomed the move.

But Professor Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, has called for the Mayor of London to be more ambitious with his proposals.

Professor Stevens, an expert in drug decriminalisation, said: “I’m in favour of policies that reduce the harms that criminalising people for possession does, but this particular policy seems a bit odd.

“There are already policies in place that enable the police to reduce those harms by not giving criminal records to people for cannabis possession. So, I am interested to hear what more this proposal does. I don’t think it goes far enough.

“I think the Government should follow the advice of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Royal Society of Public Health, which is that drug possession in small quantities should be no longer be a criminal offence.”

He added that, while much of the opposition to decriminalisation is “based on fear of what drugs can do”, there is “very little evidence that decriminalisation increases drug use and drug-related harms”.

Professor Stevens has previously appeared at City Hall to give testimony to the London Assembly health committee during a meeting about drug harm reduction.

At that meeting, which took place last October, Professor Stevens said that “it is possible” for the Mayor of London to introduce de-facto decriminalisation in London by working with the Met Commissioner to implement a programme of “diversion” in the capital.

Such programmes are employed by more than a dozen police forces in England as well as Police Scotland, whereby anyone caught in possession of a small amount of any illicit substance is referred to an appropriate education or counselling service rather than being arrested.

West Midlands Police and Thames Valley Police are among the police forces that utilise such a scheme, which extend to all drugs and people of all ages.

Martin Powell, head of partnerships at drug policy reform group Transform, has said that what is being proposed by Sadiq Khan is “really quite minor” compared to schemes already in place elsewhere in the country.

Mr Powell, who works with police forces to advise on drug policy, said: “There are over a dozen police forces that already have diversion schemes like that in place for all drugs, not just cannabis. It’s actually backed – that approach – by the Government in its new drugs strategy that came out before Christmas. It’s just that, rather than calling it diversion, they call it ‘tough consequences out-of-court disposals’.

“[Diversion] is rapidly happening across the UK based on the clear evidence, both from within the UK and from other countries like Australia that have long done this sort of thing, that not only do you not wreck young peoples’ lives through giving them a criminal record, you have better health outcomes and it also reduces reoffending.”

Similar programmes in other areas have been praised by the Government, with Policing Minister Kit Malthouse having called a diversion scheme in Durham “a wholly laudable project” in 2019.

But Mr Khan’s 2021 election pledge to set up a “drugs commission” in London to examine the potential for decriminalising cannabis was shot down by the Government as “not a matter for his office”.

Green Party London Assembly Member Caroline Russell, who also chairs the London Assembly health committee, said that Mr Khan’s proposals are “a step in the right direction” but called on the mayor to “end the delay” to setting up his drugs commission “so the Assembly has a chance to scrutinise his approach to reducing drug harm in London”.

A City Hall spokesperson has denied that the proposed move in the three boroughs would amount to decriminalisation, which the Mayor does not have legislative powers to do.

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