Jack Brown: Sadiq Khan’s drugs commission will encourage an important debate that not everyone will welcome

Jack Brown: Sadiq Khan’s drugs commission will encourage an important debate that not everyone will welcome

Sadiq Khan has used a visit to a Los Angeles cannabis dispensary to announce the chair for his upcoming London Drugs Commission. Former justice secretary Lord Charlie Falconer will lead the commission’s consideration of the legal status of some drugs, excluding Class A substances and with a “particular focus on cannabis”Although reported as if it were a new initiative, establishing the commission was a commitment in the manifesto of the re-elected Mayor, and a significant one.

The trip to the United States to “bang the drum for London” has been interesting for several reasons, but this was its most headline-grabbing moment. It provided more than an opportunity for a series of truly wonderful photographs and says a lot about the mayoralty and where it is at the moment.

The politics of it are particularly interesting. Firstly and most obviously the legalisation, or decriminalisation, of any illegal drug remains hugely controversial. Home Secretary Priti Patel responded to Khan’s announcement by tweeting that “drugs…ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives”. The Mayor’s “time would be better spent focusing on knife and drug crime in London,” she declared, and pointed out that “he has “no powers to legalise drugs”.

The latter point is indisputably true, although, in partnership with three south London boroughs, Khan has been exploring a pilot scheme to “depenalise” minor cannabis offences. And he is in agreement with part of Patel’s rebuke: his manifesto said of drugs that “their worst effects ravage communities, and the supply chain drives organised crime and serious violence”. He added, however, that as there “is no sign the government is prepared even to have a debate” about whether current drug laws improve or exacerbate this situation, his commission would “provoke an overdue national debate”.

Patel’s reaction was revealing. It is not central government’s job to tell the Mayor of London how to spend his time, and simply appointing a commission to evaluate evidence seems an entirely reasonable, even mild-mannered, thing for Khan to do. Going slightly beyond the formal “hard” powers of the mayoralty and using the huge democratic mandate and voice the position provides is in keeping with what the mayoralty was established for: Ken Livingstone’s unilateral creation of a same-sex partnerships register arguably paved the way for legislation for civil partnerships and, eventually, equal marriage.

Reaction to Khan’s move might also be assessed in the context of national politics. Cannabis decriminalisation appears to be much more popular with Londoners than in the nation at large, and Keir Starmer will surely be uncomfortable about the London Drugs Commission – he responded to boroughs pilot scheme by saying he was against changing drugs laws and any shift in his stance would lead to accusations of “London-centrism”. The Conservatives will express outrage while being privately delighted with a new opportunity to link Labour with a culture wars “wedge issue”. And we can expect to see yet more opinion pieces proposing that, as the Mayor isn’t doing what the author wants him to, the position should be abolished.

Also interesting is Khan’s former opposition to the legalisation of drugs. The Mayor seems to be heading in a slightly more radical direction in his second term, and has indicated he may seek a third. But will standing up for London and campaigning for the votes of Londoners prove increasingly damaging for to his party nationally? Several London Conservatives have made the case for developing a new and distinct identity for their party in the capital, similar to Welsh Labour or the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson. I wonder if the national Labour Party wishes London Labour would do the same.

There is also the tiny issue of what national drugs policy should be. If nothing else, we can now expect to hear more about it in the future. 

Image from Mayor of London Twitter feed.

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