The Twitter version of the headline said: “Sadiq Khan to begin decriminalising drugs in London.” The newspaper version was more specific and more hedged: “Khan moves to decriminalise use of cannabis in London.” And the full online headline grew an extra caveat: “Sadiq Khan moves to begin effectively decriminalising use of cannabis in London.”
So what exactly has the Mayor got in mind for the capital’s cannabis users? Not quite what any of the Telegraph’s headline formulations suggested.
The Telegraph story, which has excited predictable responses from the media and the government, stems from work by the organisation Volteface for Lewisham Council, which took place in early 2020, shortly before the election for London Mayor expected to take place in May of that year was postponed because of Covid.
Volteface is a London-based advocacy organisation which seeks to reduce the harm done by drugs to individuals and society. It has described “assisting Lewisham Mayor Damien Egan in facilitating a consultation with Lewisham residents on the negative impacts of low level drug offences” and said the results were “fascinating”.
In March 2020 Egan told the Evening Standard he “would be prepared to see Lewisham used as a test bed to pilot a legalised cannabis zone as long as it comes with proper education and regulation” and praised the debate about cannabis the Standard has promoted, led by David Cohen, since July 2019. An opinion poll for the Standard found that 63 per cent of Londoners backed its legalisation for adult recreational use.
The collaboration between Lewisham and Volteface has led to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) looking at introducing a pilot scheme in Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley which would see 18-24 year-olds found in possession of small amounts of cannabis – not any other illegal drug, Class B or otherwise – given classes or counselling about the harms of cannabis use rather than being arrested.
The scheme is described as “depenalising” rather than “decriminalising” minor cannabis use, recognising that neither London Mayors nor the Metropolitan Police have the power to change the law. It has not yet been approved by MOPAC. There are similar schemes already operating elsewhere and a programme for diverting women offenders, including drug users, away from reoffending operates in Camden, Islington, Lambeth and Southwark.
The wider context is Khan shifting his stance on enforcement of cannabis laws. Having previously expressed opposition to any change, in November 2019, also responding to the Standard’s coverage, he told the paper: “The time is right for our society to have an evidence-based conversation about cannabis – about the law, how it is enforced and how we support those struggling with addiction.”
He said it went without saying that he would “continue to support the police to enforce the law as it stands” but that “all Londoners will benefit if we can start a conversation that leads to a reduction in violent crime”.
In April 2021, with the rescheduled mayoral campaign well underway, Khan said if re-elected he would set up an independent commission to look into the potential health, economic and criminal justice benefits of decriminalising cannabis.
His manifesto said the commission would examine all evidence about the effectiveness of current drug laws “with particular focus on cannabis” and “come forward with policy recommendations”. Acknowledging that as Mayor he has no powers to change the law, Khan nonetheless expressed hope that the commission “will provoke an overdue national debate”.
Thus far the national debate prompted by the Telegraph article has been unimpressive and coverage claiming Labour leader Keir Starmer has “slapped down” Khan over the issue is misleading. While restating his opposition to changing existing drug laws, Starmer said he would “look at” the pilot under consideration by MOPAC. Khan says “we know that we’ll never be able to arrest our way out of the problem” but he has not called for any drug laws to be changed either.
In March 2019 Met commissioner Cressida Dick stressed to MPs that the phenomenon of extremely violent knife crime in London “is connected to drugs in one way or another…nearly all the organised crime groups are engaged, if it involves young people and violence, in, primarily drugs”. Perhaps the national conversation needs to improve.
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