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An old row about a new way of policing drugs

An old row about a new way of policing drugs


Lewisham in south east London is considering a softer approach to young people caught with drugs. Is the rest of the UK ready to endorse it?

Claudia Williams, narrating:

Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, the war on drugs rages on – but one London mayor is trying something different. 


Damien Egan is a Labour politician and the Mayor of Lewisham, in south east London. 

As a child, growing up in Bristol, with his mum and sister, Damien experienced homelessness and financial hardship. He says those experiences really shaped his politics. So it makes sense that he’s become a fierce advocate for working class communities like his in Lewisham. 

And Damien Egan noticed that the way drugs are being policed in his borough – and others like it –  is harming his constituents.

One issue that I will continue to focus my efforts is on the issue of drug reform and I will continue to work with others for an evidence-based system; one which treats drug use as a public health, not a criminal justice issue.

Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham’s speech at a 2020 annual general meeting

He believes there’s little evidence that criminalisation actually reduces drug use and reoffending rates, that it causes unnecessary strain on the police, and that there are clear racial disparities in how drugs are policed. Damien Egan believes that the system needs changing.

So that’s what he’s set out to do. 

He is now spearheading a pilot scheme that stops police arresting young people who are found with “small” amounts of cannabis. And it’s caused a commotion because although Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has publicly supported the program. It goes against the Labour party line. 

When asked about the scheme, Labour leader Keir Starmer made his position on decriminalisation very clear.

I’m not in favour of us changing the law or decriminalisation and I’m very clear about that. I’m very clear that we’re not in favour of changing the drugs law. 

Keir Starmer making a speech in Birmingham cited in the Telegraph

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has also backed a “war on drugs” style strategy to tackle recreational drugs use…

This government is absolutely determined to fight drugs, I take the view that it’s been a long time since you’ve heard a government say that Class A drugs are bad, bad for society, bad for opportunity, bad for kids growing up in this country.

Boris Johnson cited in the Telegraph

But are Damien Egan and Sadiq Khan really decriminalising drugs in London?


The short answer is no, not exactly. This pilot scheme is a lot less radical than that. Despite initial reports that the proposal includes Class B drugs such as ketamine and amphetamines, this program only applies to cannabis.

It’s targeted at 18-24 year olds in certain areas who are found to be in possession of small amounts of cannabis. Instead of being arrested, they’re invited to educational courses that highlight the dangers of drugs. It’s similar to what happens with some driving offences. 

The hope is that these young people won’t get a criminal record that could destroy their chances of finding stable employment, housing or education. 

It’s also worth pointing out the difference between legalisation, which is what’s happened in Portugal and Canada, and decriminalisation, which is what the scheme is about: 

Decriminalisation means it’s still not legal it’s just that, if caught with a small amount of the drugs on your person you won’t face the criminalisation that you currently do today. In a legal market it’s properly structured, it’s set up in a way that allows for taxes to move smoothly into government’s palms.

Jonathan Nadler as cited in GB News

It’s all part of Damien Egan’s vision of a public health approach to drug use — rather than a criminal approach.  But will the scheme actually go ahead? 

It’s still in development and is yet to be approved by City Hall – or even officially announced. And with all the attention it has garnered for Sadiq Khan there’s a chance that the political pressure for the London Mayor to maintain a “tough on crime” stance might make this type of pilot less attractive. 

Without his support, the programme could face a less certain future.


Pilots like the one Damien Egan is suggesting aren’t new. Back in the 90s, a very similar program was launched in the south London borough of Lambeth. 

It ended after six short months. Critics of the policy claimed it had turned Lambeth into a haven for cannabis. But over the last decade five other police forces in England and Wales have already introduced drug-decriminalisation-style programs.

We have the evidence in the UK, there’ve been some very good diversion schemes in Durham, I can think of another in the West Midlands and there are others. We don’t need to look at the evidence abroad, we can look at the evidence in the UK on how these things work.

House of Commons Misuse of Drugs Act Debate

Most of them have been pretty successful. Thames Valley Police found that 70 percent of those who were put through the normal criminal justice system reoffended within 12 months. With the diversion scheme, the reoffending rate was 0 percent. 

These programs are seen by many as necessary steps forward to introducing safer and more effective drug laws. But the response to Damien Egan’s pilot shows that not everyone is on the same page. 

City Hall officials have insisted that even if the pilot were to go ahead it would be subject to a “robust evaluation” before any city-wide roll-out. And Sadiq Khan’s team has been sure to publicly state that he does not support full decriminalisation and that the scope of the scheme has been misreported.  

Even though this pilot program hasn’t even launched yet, it’s been caught in the middle of a broader political battle over what the future of policing drugs should look like.

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.