A drugs-related criminal record is often more harmful than the drug itself

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s plans to sanction the depenalisation of drugs in some boroughs could improve the life prospects of many people

Ian Hamilton
Wednesday 05 January 2022 12:50
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When I heard reports that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is to sanction the depenalisation of drugs, I had a strange sense of déjà vu, for this isn’t the first time that a prominent public figure has tried experimenting with drugs policy.

In 2001, Lord Brian Paddick, who was the local police commander for Lambeth at the time, decided to issue warnings rather than charges for anyone caught with a small amount of cannabis. Although controversial at the time, this move is thought to have been influential on the decision to reclassify cannabis that followed, when it was moved from class B to class C between 2004 and 2009.

Sadiq Khan is proposing a hybrid version of the scheme tried in Lambeth 20 years ago. His scheme will see anyone under the age of 25 caught with cannabis, in just three of London’s 32 boroughs, offered an educational course about the harms associated with the drug instead of facing a formal charge.

The mayor’s press office has already rushed out clarification about the trial, as some had speculated that the scheme wasn’t only targeted at cannabis, but other class B drugs too, such as ketamine and amphetamines. The mayor’s office has made clear, however, that only cannabis will be included in the pilot.

It’s important to point out that this scheme will not decriminalise drugs, which is beyond the power of the Mayor of London. Cannabis possession, supply and use will remain illegal, but those caught with small amounts of the drug have the option of avoiding a criminal charge by taking up the educational option.

There is little doubt that fresh thinking about cannabis policy is needed. There is clear evidence of how harmful current policy is. In Lewisham, between 2016 and 2020, nine out of 10 drug charges were due to possession of cannabis. More concerning is the racial bias in how this policy is applied, with young black men in the borough 2.4 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than their white counterparts.

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For many people, the damage caused by a criminal record related to drugs is far greater than the harm of the drug itself. It is not just that international travel can be curtailed, but employment can be severely restricted in a group that already has higher than average rates of unemployment.

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There are clear parallels between this new scheme and the existing approach taken with those who are caught breaking the law for speeding. For these drivers, a speed awareness course is offered instead of a fine and points applied to their license. Broadly, this approach is deemed to have been successful as it has reduced repeat offending. Sadly, we just don’t have the same level of evidence for drug education interventions such as the one to be introduced in London.

The majority of people using cannabis do so without a problem and the drug has a minimal impact on their life. As with a speed awareness course, those caught with cannabis may view the educational course as an inconvenience they must endure to avoid a criminal record but without any intention of changing their use of the drug.

However, if this scheme does reduce the disproportionate impact of current drug laws on sections of our community, namely young black and Asian people, by ensuring their life chances and career prospects aren’t scuppered by a criminal record for possession of drugs, then that would be a great achievement. If it also prompts a rethink in Westminster, then this will be an experiment with drugs that will have succeeded. Only time will tell.

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York

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