15 MPs have written to the Mayor of London requesting he drop a pilot scheme that would divert young people away from the criminal justice system.
A group of Conservative MPs have urged Sadiq Khan to drop the proposed pilot scheme saying that it would have “wider ramifications than heightened violent crime”.
MP for Orpington, Gareth Bacon, publicly stated that: “Khan’s policing trial would send the wrong message to young Londoners. Cannabis is not harmless, and using it is not a victimless crime.”
Together with colleagues, I have written to the Mayor urging him to drop his scheme to effectively decriminalise cannabis in parts of London.
Khan’s policing trial would send the wrong message to young Londoners. Cannabis is not harmless, and using it is not a victimless crime. pic.twitter.com/AhzNdHoLI2
— Gareth Bacon MP (@GarethBaconMP) January 12, 2022
The MPs state they believe the scheme, which they suggest in the letter will “effectively decriminalise” cannabis possession, risks inflaming violence in the city by funnelling cash into the pockets of criminals.
The pilot scheme, which is similar to others being run across the country, has been put forward to be trialled in Bexley, Lewisham and Greenwich. It aims to divert 18 to 14-year-olds away from the criminal justice system if caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.
The scheme intends to prevent young people’s lives from being blighted by criminal records for low-level crime and to provide counselling and drug education to mitigate the potential harms of drug use in the lives of young people.
Drug reform group Volteface, which produced the Lewisham-commissioned report suggesting the scheme, has highlighted that it would not be effective decriminalisation but a diversion pilot.
Speaking to Cannabis Wealth, Katya Kowalski, head of operations at Voletface, commented: “I think what this shows is that there is a disconnect between what MPs are coming out and stating, what the media is coming out and stating, and what is actually taking place.
“There’s a lack of understanding around what this [scheme] actually is – stating that crime and violence will go up when, in fact, these measures are trying to prevent crime and tackle problematic drug use from its core. I think there is a disconnect and a lack of understanding around what decriminalisation actually means.”
National charity, Revolving Doors, which works to help decision-makers develop solutions “that address the underlying systemic faults that can trap people within the crisis-crime cycle”, pointed out that “diversion is not decriminalisation”.
Diversion is not decriminalisation.
Diversion stops young adults getting caught up in a cycle of crisis and crime.
Diversion reduces reoffending and, when done well, puts young adults in touch with vital support networks.
Diversion works. https://t.co/OICuC6E4Qn
— Revolving Doors (@RevDoors) January 14, 2022
In 2011, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) noted in a report that: “The ACMD also believe that there is an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who have committed an offence by possession of drugs.
“For people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses.”
Reform organisation Transform Drugs highlights that other similar schemes run throughout the UK and across the globe, however, show evidence that such programmes can prevent crime by reducing reoffending, reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and reducing some drug use.
Kowalski highlighted that the pilot scheme would help young people from vulnerable communities and is aiming to tackle racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system – particularly in London around drug possession.
“I think one thing that the MPs are disregarding is the fact this is a pilot scheme. It is not a widespread policy change. What the scheme is looking at doing is actually collecting evidence and seeing whether a scheme like this does lower reoffending, whether it does lower crime. I am confident that the results will come in and show that.”
Towards the end of 2021, the UK Government released its ten-year drug strategy that aimed to move away from treating drug use and addiction as a criminal matter, and towards treating it as a health matter. The strategy intends to cut crime and get more people into treatment.
“It is surprising that these MPs are coming out against the scheme as the UK drug strategy that came out at the beginning of December is in fact completely in line with this,” added Kowalski.
“There is a focus on diversion – moving away from criminalisation and towards a health approach for drug users.
“I think [the letter] shows the reactive nature of drug policy, where people come out against it just because they feel like there is a kind of moral infringement. Drug policy creates a lot of immediate reactions and feelings rather than what the state of play is and what’s actually taking place.”
On January 4, a spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “The idea of the scheme, which is already used by other police forces across the country, would be to divert young people who are found with a small amount of cannabis away from the criminal justice system and instead provide help and support. This has been shown to reduce reoffending.
“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.”
“This is a great initiative to move young people away from exploitation and an illegal drug trade,” said Kowalski.
MP Gareth Bacon did not respond for comment at the time of publishing.
What can Uruguay teach the UK about cannabis policy?
Recreational cannabis has been legal in the country since 2013 – one think tank says Uruguay could help inform how to improve criminal and health outcomes in the UK.
As the pressure mounts on the UK to assess its approach to cannabis policy – could policymakers look to Uruguay as an example of successful reform?
With news from Europe in 2021 of legalisation and cannabis reform, the UK’s current approach remains unaligned with citizen consensus.
Polling in the UK has outlined that the majority of the UK public supports legislation reform, and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for CBD has recently called on the UK Government to establish a legal industry – highlighting it could create the equivalent number of jobs and income for the economy as the Scotch Whisky industry.
Following London’s launch of a new pilot to divert young people away from the criminal justice system for possession of cannabis, last week also saw an announcement from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that he is establishing a London Drugs Commission which will assess the UK approach to drug laws.
Khan has taken a fact-finding visit to LA to see what lessons could be learned in responding to the challenges of drugs. However, whilst the US is one example of how different approaches to cannabis policy could work, cross-party think tank The Social Market Foundation has suggested that the UK could draw lessons from Uruguay, which legalised the plant in 2013 and began commercial sales in 2017.
According to the think tank, the UK’s “outdated” laws are “not fit for purpose” and “mean that we suffer higher crime and worse health outcomes than would be expected under a more liberal regime”.
Making cannabis illegal to cultivate, possess and sell results in a major loss of tax revenue for the government, with the money instead being funnelled into the black market which is controlled by “violent criminals” and can see consumers using products that may be unsafe for consumption.
Uruguay as an example of liberalisation
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) has conducted cross-country analysis which shows that Uruguay is a leader on cannabis policy. After initial legalisation, the country slowly rolled out its policies, adopting a “health over profit” model – which should be an inspiration for the UK, says the think tank.
SMF Researcher and report author, Jake Shepherd, commented: “Over the last 50 years, governments in the UK have hardly moved their anti-cannabis stance, even as evidence shows it to be less harmful than substances like alcohol, and public perception of the illicit substance has evolved. In contrast, countries across the world are reaping myriad benefits of progressive reforms.
“The need for cannabis policy reform is clear – public opinion on cannabis and demand for it is rapidly changing.
“By learning from international examples such as Uruguay’s, the UK can put in place the right policy framework to navigate the current system, the unregulated commercial market and balance key priorities of safeguarding public health, reducing criminal activity and delivering economic gain – to ultimately benefit society.”
The think tank highlights that in Uruguay, cannabis can be bought from regulated pharmacies at subsidised prices – which prevents corporate interests from capturing the market, and that the Uruguay Government controls cannabis production to ensure safety and quality of the products on the market, with only a few allowed to produce cannabis.
Bringing cannabis policy up to date could bring several benefits to the UK, such as legitimising the cannabis market, says the think tank, which is currently valued at £2bn.
A legitimate market could bring in higher tax revenues for the exchequer and improve criminal justice outcomes, as poorer and ethnic minority people are more likely to face criminal sanctions for cannabis-related offences.
Helping young people in the UK
Khan’s recent announcement and visit to LA has been met with some criticism – with Policing Minister Kit Malthouse describing the visit as “baffling”, stating Khan should focus on decreasing knife crime.
However, as Malthouse himself points out – more than 50 per cent of all murders in London are linked to drug use. The UK also has a major problem with young people being used as part of county lines operations to push drugs across the country.
One of the common arguments against the legalisation of cannabis is the dangers that they pose to young people, however, the Social Market Foundation points out that cannabis is the most used illicit drug “especially among people aged 30 and under, with 30 per cent of people having tried it at least once.”
Legalising the plant would end the use of the black market and would provide the market with the opportunity to restrict sales to those under the age of 18 – a policy that Uruguay has implemented in its recreational sales.
A recent study, published in the journal Addiction, assessing cannabis use in adolescents ages 12 to 21 found that Uruguay’s approach to cannabis has not further increased the use of cannabis in young people.
The authors state: “The legalisation of recreational cannabis in Uruguay was not associated with overall increases in either past-year/past-month cannabis use or with multi-year changes in any risky and frequent cannabis use among young people.”
The Social Market Foundation has also suggested international examples that could hold key lessons for the UK including: Oregon, which has seen the State reap high profits and make billions in tax revenue with the rapid expansion of a legal retail market; Portugal, which has saved money on court cases on minor offences, all of which is being reinvested in treatment services; Cannabis social clubs in Spain, which have undermined the black market, though it has failed to tackle organised crime; and, the fact that public safety in Uruguay has improved, as cannabis users interact less with drug dealers.
London Drugs Commission launched by Mayor to assess cannabis laws
The Mayor of London is visiting LA to see what lessons could be learned in the UK in responding to the challenges of drugs.
The first-ever London Drugs Commission is to be established by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to examine the effectiveness of drug laws in relation to cannabis.
The new Commission will gather evidence from around the world on different approaches to cannabis policy. This will include the best methods of prevention, the most effective criminal justice responses and the public health benefits of these different approaches.
It will be comprised of independent experts and leading figures from criminal justice, public health, politics, community relations and academia, and former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Lord Charlie Falconer QC will act as chair.
London is currently plagued with drug-related crime, with an approximate 56,000 reported drug offences in 2020/21. Most of these drug crimes consisted of possession offences.
The city is already considering a diversion pilot scheme to help reduce drug-related crime that will see the temporary suspension of arrests of 18 to 24-year-olds for the possession of small amounts of cannabis.
To help inform understanding of different approaches, Khan is now on a fact finding mission to LA to understand more about an international evidence-based approach to reducing drug related harm in the capital.
Ina statement, Khan commented: “The illegal drugs trade causes huge damage to our society and we need to do more to tackle this epidemic and further the debate around our drugs laws. That’s why I am here today in LA to see first-hand the approach they have taken to cannabis.
“We must learn from others when considering our approach, and by examining the latest evidence from around the world and the world-class research from UCL, Lord Falconer and the will make recommendations to improve our approach to cannabis to help tackle drug related crime, protect Londoners’ health and reduce the huge damage that illegal drugs cause to our communities.”
Since legalising cannabis in 2016, LA has seen a drastic reduction in drug-related crime – with cannabis arrests falling by 56 per cent. Felony arrests for cannabis fell by 74 per cent to 2,086 in 2017 from 7,949 in 2016.
On his trip, the Mayor is visiting a cannabis dispensary and cultivation facility and meeting a representative from the LAPD, policy and health experts, cannabis growers and senior government officials, to find out more about the city’s approach.
“The decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis offers historically marginalised communities opportunities for healing, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation in this growing industry,” said Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti. “Cities have so much to learn from one another, and I applaud Mayor Khan’s thoughtful approach as London moves forward.”
Khan’s progressive approach to exploring cannabis policy is in keeping with public opinion, as recent YouGov surveys revealed that 52 per cent of UK citizens say they would support the legalisation of cannabis in the country, and six in ten (63 per cent) Londoners expressed support for the proposed diversion pilot.
Katya Kowalski, head of operation at Volteface, which produced the consultancy report into the negative impacts of low-level drug offences for the pilot, commented: “It’s really positive to see such an evidence based approach taking place by the Mayor of London. Khan has already come out in favour of reform, seeing a proactive, structured approach to assessing policy reform is fantastic. It is very clear that our current cannabis laws are not fit for purpose. I think the set up of this Commission demonstrates and highlights this realisation.
“The desire for drug reform is being increasingly more apparent. The majority of the UK is in support of cannabis legalisation, with even higher figures in the capital. Public and popular opinion is already there. I see this Commission as a starting point to examine how we go about legalising cannabis, taking an evidence base approach.
“I think going forward, it is essential we follow the evidence and learn from jurisdictions which have already legalised around what is working and what is not. It is no longer about whether we change our cannabis laws but how we go about doing it. I hope the Commission brings a multifaceted approach and model to the table, encompassing public health considerations and the protection of young people.”
The London Cannabis Commission, chaired by Hamish Stewart, has already recommended that London pilots a legal cannabis industry to dampen violence and provide resources to reinvest into youth services and training, arguing that keeping cannabis illegal for retail users entrenches racial inequalities.
In a previous statement to Cannabis Wealth, Stewart commented: “There is nowhere to go but up, and London and other UK cities can really build on the international experience of Canada, the US, New York State and a whole number of other jurisdictions which already have decriminalised for the legal cannabis market. And so, this is really about the start of a very rapid catching-up process.”
A recent report produced by national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law in the UK, Release, has also laid out cannabis social equity principles for a legal UK industry, which builds on the organisation’s national research that highlights the disproportionate policing relating to cannabis of ethnic minority and other disadvantaged groups.
The report outlines 14 principles for reform, including removing criminal or civil sanctions for use or possession of cannabis, automatic release from prison for cannabis-related prisoners and expungement of past cannabis-related convictions, personal cultivation of cannabis and co-operative cannabis distribution models such as social clubs.
University College London (UCL) has been appointed to the Commission in order to provide world-class evidence-based research and assessment on the criminal justice, health and economic implications for any potential change in policy.
Ben Bradford, Institute for Global City Policing at UCL, commented: “This opportunity to work in partnership with the London Drugs Commission to review and develop evidence regarding the implications of drug laws both here and around the world is hugely welcome.
“I look forward to working with Lord Falconer and the Commission to inform debate across the range of issues it will consider, ensuring that high quality evidence lies at the heart of its conclusions and recommendations.”
Lord Charlie Falconer QC said: “I’m honoured to have been appointed chair of the London Drugs Commission. It is a real opportunity for there to be a thorough look at the effectiveness of our drugs laws and policy on cannabis.
“We need rigorously to identify what is the best approach to reduce harm to our communities. A national debate is long overdue. We aim to make recommendations to bring about effective and lasting change.”
Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, added: “It’s vital that we do everything we can to reduce the harm and misery caused by the illegal drugs industry in London.
“That’s why the London Drugs Commission will examine the effectiveness of our drug laws on cannabis, and under Lord Charlie Falconer QC will make recommendations that will help criminal justice and health bodies consider how best to improve the situation for Londoners.”
Following its work, the London Drugs Commission will make a series of policy recommendations for City Hall, the Government, the police, the criminal justice system and public health services. Further members of the London Drugs Commission will be announced this summer.
“Positive shock waves”: Germany accelerates process for cannabis legalisation
Germany’s health minister Karl Lauterbach – who until last year was opposed to cannabis legalisation – said Germany’s coalition government will begin the legal process for cannabis legalisation sooner than planned.
Speaking to the German newspaper Handelsblatt, Karl Lauterbach said the government plans to accelerate a number of projects that have been stalled due to the pandemic, including the legalisation of cannabis which formed part of the government’s political agenda announced in 2021.
“I’ve changed my mind on [cannabis reform] over the past two years,” Lauterbach told the newspaper. “I’ve always been opposed to cannabis legalisation, but I revised my position about a year ago.”
Christian Linder, Germany’s Finance Minister, echoed Lauterbach’s statements with a Tweet reading: “A question that many people keep asking me: ‘When will Bubatz [slang term for cannabis] be legal?’ I would say soon.”
The German federal government announced it would be putting plans in motion to legalise cannabis in November 2021. The process has since been delayed due, in part, to the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Up until now, it has been rumoured that plans for cannabis reform would be pushed back to Autumn, but Karl Lauterbach said he wants it to be included in the government’s summer agenda along with several other health policy reforms including the digitisation of the health system and hospital structure reform.
The process of legalisation will begin with the drug commissioner discussing the technicalities with experts, Handelsblatt reported.
“The time over the summer must be used to vigorously push reforms that could no longer be pushed to the autumn,” said Lauterbach.
Michael Sassano, CEO & Founder of European cannabis manufacturer Somai Pharmaceutical, said the health minister’s change of position has “sent positive shock waves” to every health minister in Europe.”
“[Lauterbach’s] position brings more credibility than any politician’s words. His participation now indicates that cannabis will be treated as a narcotic. The cultivation and manufacturing will likely stay at the same high level of EU GMP pharmaceutical grade, creating a significant entry barrier compared to novel food products,” Sassano told Cannabis Wealth.
“Distribution is expected to continue through pharmacies, but additional cannabis-only dispensaries and social clubs have a high probability of expanding the availability and footprint of sales outlets to increase adoption. Germany clearly sees that the risk of non-regulated and non-taxed cannabis products consumed by Germans that cannot get a prescription from their doctor is much more significant than reducing the burden and indications to purchase cannabis.”
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