Sadiq Khan’s proposed plan to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis in Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley “does not go far enough”, according to experts.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday that the mayor is considering a new pilot scheme in the three boroughs that would see any under-25s caught with small amounts of cannabis redirected to education or counselling services instead of facing arrest.
City Hall has said the idea came from Lewisham Council, which approached the mayor’s office after commissioning a report recommending a pilot scheme. Lewisham shares a police command with Greenwich and Bexley.
The plan has been met by a backlash from the Conservatives – including in Bexley, where the party runs the council – and may also face opposition from Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who said he was not in favour of decriminalising drugs in England.
But experts in the fields of criminal justice and public health have welcomed the move. And Professor Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, has called for the mayor to be more ambitious with his proposals.
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”.
Stevens appeared at City Hall last October to give testimony to the London Assembly health committee about drug harm reduction. He said that “it is possible” for the Mayor of London to introduce de facto decriminalisation in London by working with the police to implement a programme of “diversion” in the capital.
Such programmes are employed by more than a dozen police forces in England – including in the West Midlands and Thames Valley – and Police Scotland. Anyone caught in possession of a small amount of any illicit substance, whatever their age, is referred to an appropriate education or counselling service rather than being arrested.
Martin Powell, head of partnerships at the drug policy reform group Transform, said that Khan’s proposal was “really quite minor” compared to the schemes already in place elsewhere.
Powell, who works with police forces to advise on drug policy, said: “The approach is actually backed 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.”
Lewisham’s elected mayor Damien Egan said on Twitter yesterday: “The evidence from diversion schemes across the country show that they work, giving young people the support they need and reduce re-offending. With Sadiq Khan we are exploring these new approaches.”
No senior Greenwich councillor has commented on the idea. But Bexley’s ruling Conservative group said they were “appalled”, adding: “We do not want our borough to be a guinea pig for this policy – and nor do Bexley residents.”
A statement issued on behalf of the borough’s 33 Tory councillors – including Alex Sawyer, the husband of Priti Patel, the home secretary – said: “We strongly opposed the mayor’s decision to axe Bexley’s borough police force and merge it with Lewisham and Greenwich, which has meant that our residents lose out as valuable resources are concentrated in areas with higher levels of crime, and yet again the mayor is showing he doesn’t care about our residents or what they want.”
However, similar programmes in other areas have been praised by the Tory government, with Kit Malthouse, the policing minister under Patel, having called a diversion scheme in Durham “a wholly laudable project” in 2019. But Khan’s election pledge last year 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”.
A City Hall spokesperson has denied that the proposed move in the three boroughs would amount to decriminalisation, which the mayor does not have the power to do.
Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain.
Joe Talora is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority, based at the Evening Standard. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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