Photo by Leon Neal

The drug war’s Neville Chamberlain

Decriminalising cannabis is the last thing London’s young people need

Artillery Row

The ready availability of cannabis is taken as read amongst young Brits today. Skunk, kush and hash, alongside their attendant wide-eyed stoners and pungent stench, have become as familiar a feature of Britain’s towns and cities as shuttered high street shops and creaking Wetherspoons. Nowhere is this more the case than in London, where 63 per cent of those surveyed believe the drug should be legalised. Sadiq Khan’s plans — revealed this week — are a concerning step in that direction.

Khan’s move is a damning surrender to our capital’s drug problem

According to The Telegraph, the capital’s mayor is planning to end the prosecution of young Londoners caught with cannabis. Under-25s will be asked to swap spliffs for counselling across a range of boroughs, following the conclusions of a Drugs Commission established by Khan after his re-election last year. As well as running directly contrary to Boris Johnson’s newfound resolve to clamp down on the sorts of middle-class cocaine-sniffers with whom he used to share a newsroom, Khan’s move is a damning surrender to our capital’s drug problem that could do more harm to exactly those vulnerable young people he should be hoping to protect.

The scheme will initially apply to three boroughs Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich where police officers will be asked not to arrest young people caught with cannabis, and potentially ketamine and speed. Puffers of the magic dragon have already benefited from similarly lax approaches in the West Midlands, Durham and Somerset. Khan’s argument is that prosecuting teens caught with spliffs has been diverting police officers away from dealing with London’s surging violent crime rates: between 2016 and 2020, 9 in 10 drug proceedings brought against young people in Lewisham were for cannabis possession. Those caught with wacky baccy will now be directed to courses educating them on the dangers of drugs.

On the surface, Khan’s new approach mirrors that of Portugal. Since 2001, those caught with anything from the contents of Red Rum’s medicine cabinet through to heroin and cocaine are hauled in front of a Stalinist-sounding “commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction” in lieu of a criminal record. This Star has apparently borne results. From 2001 to 2012, Portugal saw a 60 per cent increase in the rate of the uptake of drugs treatment, a drop in use amongst 13–15-year-olds, and a fall in drug related deaths from 131 in 2001 to 20 by 2008. Not figures to be sniffed at (or inhaled).

Evidence for cannabis’ harmful consequences continues to stack up

But Khan’s proposals have crucial differences with the Portuguese approach. Portugal may have decriminalised the possession and consumption of all illicit substances, but they remain illegal. Users don’t just get a telling off, but can be fined, forced into treatment, or see their passport confiscated. Not only is this far from a light touch, but more strenuous than current practice in the UK. Possession of cannabis nominally holds a sentence time of five years. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of warnings, penalties, cautions and prosecutions handed out for cannabis use plummeted by around 80,000. Potheads largely get off scot free a 2011 Freedom of Information request revealed only 554 people were in prison for drug possession. The same year, nearly three million adults were estimated to have taken an illegal drug.

As such, rather than curbing cannabis use, Khan’s proposals make smoking more acceptable, since they lack the pressures that have reduced consumption in Portugal. What makes this particularly concerning is that evidence for cannabis’ harmful consequences continues to stack up. A study released by America’s National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 20 per cent of adolescents become addicted to cannabis within three years of first trying it. Eleven studies covering over 23,000 people also found that those who used cannabis before the age of 18 were 37 per cent more likely to develop depression by the age of 32, and more than three times more likely to commit suicide. The last few years have naturally seen a severe strain on the mental health of many of Britain’s young people, with 52.5 per cent of 17-to-23-year-olds claiming to have seen theirs deteriorate. Making cannabis use easier will only stoke this problem further.

There is another way. Rather than discouraging prosecutions for drug offences to free up the Met to spend more time harassing women at vigils and dancing whilst XR make commuters’ lives hell, Khan should follow the example of his counterparts in Tokyo. As late as 1950, Japan had over 25,000 cannabis farms. Following the 1948 Cannabis Control Law, Japan has cracked down on cannabis possession, cultivation and transfer. This policy has been hugely successful. In 2019, only 1.9 per cent of Japan’s population reported ever having smoked cannabis in their lifetime, compared to 29.6 per cent in the UK. We might not be able to uninvent the spliff, but Japan shows the direction of travel does not only have to favour those with 420 t-shirts.

Such an outcome would require stronger leadership than London has now. Sadiq Khan has positioned himself as the Neville Chamberlain of Britain’s war on drugs, happy to appease the problem rather than fight it. The consequences for the mental wellbeing of London’s young could be disastrous.

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