Sadiq Khan’s drug reforms don’t go far enough

On Monday evening, a story leaked in the Telegraph that Sadiq Khan was set to “begin decriminalising drugs” in the capital. Whilst this is not exactly true – there are plenty of reasons for drug law reformers to be excited.

In actual fact, Khan has confirmed – off the back of a report that I authored for Volteface – that London’s first cannabis-diversion scheme would likely be implemented. Diversion schemes are similar to driving awareness courses, whereby young people caught in possession of cannabis avoid criminal sanctions.

Such schemes are common across the UK, being rolled out in various forms from Scotland to Avon & Somerset, Durham to the West Midlands and as close to London as Thames Valley. These schemes are said to reduce reoffending, provide a ‘second chance’ to potential offenders, and crucially reduce the burden on our overstretched criminal justice system and policing Constabularies.

This scheme differs, however, in that it aims to reduce racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system in London. You are four times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are Black, compared to if you are White, despite being no more likely to possess an illicit substance. Clearly, something needed to change.

According to the polling, these schemes are extremely popular too. A 2019 Yougov poll found an enormous 76% (or 3 in 4) believe “the threat of criminal sanctions is not effective at deterring drug users.” This is a vote winner – particularly in the capital where 2019 polling demonstrates a strong clamour for a fresh approach to drug use.

Furthermore, given that Khan recently announced a “drugs commission,” why did this story create such a storm when the initiative is nothing new?

Well, despite Number 10 and the Home Office taking pot shots at the proposed pilot scheme, the government has in fact implemented diversion as part of its recently announced drugs strategy. Project ADDER, in place to “cut the head off the snake” of drugs, encompasses diversion as one of the D’s the acronym is in place for.

This demonstrates the difficulties for politicians following the evidence when it comes to drugs. Despite the schemes being saliently proven across the UK, the fear of attack lines – generally from the Right – often scupper progressive change when it comes to drugs.

After the leak, Starmer was quizzed on the scheme in Birmingham and he retorted that he “does not believe in changing drug laws, and does not support decriminalisation”, queueing a flurry of “Khan at war with Starmer stories” – also not quite true.

In fact, Starmer endorsed diversion during the leadership election. Diversion does not “change drug laws”, but instead operates through deprioritisation agreements with the police, and no amendments to legislation are required.

To break down the second part of Starmers statement, this is not technically decriminalisation either. I would argue that this was a sly response, designed to knock back Right wing newspapers, without actually dismissing diversion schemes.

As mentioned previously, 3 in 4 people do not believe our drug laws are working; why, then, are politicians so reticent to champion alternative approaches?

I believe this is down to a preconception of the views of those all-important red wall voters, but that this preconception is wrong, too. Yougov recently polled a number of ‘culture war’ issues in red wall constituencies and found liberal attitudes in these areas. Transgender rights, for example, had the same level of support in red wall seats, as the rest of the UK.

It is obvious among Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet colleagues that they too are aware that the current approach is not effective in reducing usage, drug-related crime, or reoffending. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy was taken to Canada to see a cannabis farm by Volteface, and is on record as being pro legalisation of cannabis.

Shadow Leader of the Commons, Thangam Debbonaire, co-Founded the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, furthermore, which is also backed by other Shadow Ministers including Jess Phillips and Jeff Smith. Current Shadow Work & Pensions Minister (and former Shadow Health) Jonathan Ashworth also backed the campaign at conference in 2019.

If the public recognises that current drug policy is not fit for purpose, therefore, and politicians are at least privately making warm noises, then there is only one reason to be fearful: the media.

As the news of the leak broke on bank holiday Monday, there was a fear among authors of the report, and political figures involved that this was a ‘hatchet job;’we were braced for a much dreaded ‘Khan Soft on Drugs’ front page. And yet, this did not happen.

In fact, whilst a tad over-zealous, most of the reporting on the scheme has been quite fair, and with minimal negative fuss too. Khan has since written positively in the I about diversion, and it seems that the leak has not scuppered 12 months of research and planning, after all.

The announcement of this scheme, and public opinions related to drugs, is excellently juxtaposed in the two big ‘drug stories’ over the past few weeks.

Firstly, the MET were forced into a grovelling clarification statement around the misleading “Swab and Search” video which has been viewed well over a million times, with the public and the media rightly ridiculing the move. Most of the attacks focused on the enormous cost, lack of sensible prioritisation (the public are more concerned about violence and crime against women), and its serious lack of efficacy – only one woman was arrested. And, for a simple possession offence.

Secondly, despite confusion, misleading headlines and a general sense of hot-air – Khan’s accidental announcement has gone down remarkably well. As Criminology Professor Alex Stevens told, “it has long been possible for police to decide not to arrest or charge people for low level drug offences. Many forces have used their discretion to divert people – and especially children – away from prosecution for many years.”

In short, this is not unchartered territory at all, but rather it is a proven solution to a long-standing problem of racial disproportionality in stop and search, and therefore over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system. It is time that politicians across the House got up to speed with the public and implemented policies rooted in public health and not addiction.

The leaked story was based on a Volteface report, which was written in consultation with Lewisham Council. The report will be officially published in the coming weeks.