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, Iâ€™m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.
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Today, the war on drugs rages on â€“ but one London mayor is trying something different.Â
Damien Egan is a Labour politician and the Mayor of Lewisham, in south east London.Â
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.Â So it makes sense that heâ€™s become a fierce advocate for working class communities like his in Lewisham.Â
And Damien Egan noticed that the way drugs are being policed in his borough â€“ and others like it â€“Â 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 Lewishamâ€™s speech at a 2020 annual general meeting
He believes thereâ€™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 thatâ€™s what heâ€™s set out to do.Â
He is now spearheading a pilot scheme that stops police arresting young people who are found with â€śsmallâ€ť amounts of cannabis.Â And itâ€™s caused a commotion because although Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has publicly supported the program. It goes against the Labour party line.Â
When asked about the scheme, Labour leader Keir Starmer made his position on decriminalisation very clear.
Iâ€™m not in favour of us changing the law or decriminalisation and Iâ€™m very clear about that. Iâ€™m very clear that weâ€™re not in favour of changing the drugs law.ÂKeir Starmer making a speech in Birmingham cited in the Telegraph
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has also backed a â€śwar on drugsâ€ť style strategy to tackle recreational drugs useâ€¦
This government is absolutely determined to fight drugs, I take the view that itâ€™s been a long time since youâ€™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.Â This pilot scheme is a lot less radical than that.Â Despite initial reports that the proposal includes Class B drugs such as ketamine and amphetamines, this program only applies to cannabis.
Itâ€™s targeted at 18-24 year olds in certain areas who are found to be in possession of small amounts of cannabis.Â Instead of being arrested, theyâ€™re invited to educational courses that highlight the dangers of drugs. Itâ€™s similar to what happens with some driving offences.Â
The hope is that these young people wonâ€™t get a criminal record that could destroy their chances of finding stable employment, housing or education.Â
Itâ€™s also worth pointing out the difference between legalisation, which is whatâ€™s happened in Portugal and Canada, and decriminalisation, which is what the scheme is about:Â
Decriminalisation means itâ€™s still not legal itâ€™s just that, if caught with a small amount of the drugs on your person you wonâ€™t face the criminalisation that you currently do today. In a legal market itâ€™s properly structured, itâ€™s set up in a way that allows for taxes to move smoothly into governmentâ€™s palms.Jonathan Nadler as cited in GB News
Itâ€™s all part of Damien Eganâ€™s vision of a public health approach to drug use â€” rather than a criminal approach.Â Â But will the scheme actually go ahead?Â
Itâ€™s still in development and is yet to be approved by City Hall â€“ or even officially announced. And with all the attention it has garnered for Sadiq Khan thereâ€™s a chance that the political pressure for the London Mayor to maintain a â€śtough on crimeâ€ť stance might make this type of pilot less attractive.Â
Without his support, the programme could face a less certain future.
Pilots like the one Damien Egan is suggesting arenâ€™t new.Â Back in the 90s, a very similar program was launched in the south London borough of Lambeth.Â
It ended after six short months. Critics of the policy claimed it had turned Lambeth into a haven for cannabis.Â 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, thereâ€™ve been some very good diversion schemes in Durham, I can think of another in the West Midlands and there are others. We donâ€™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.Â With the diversion scheme, the reoffending rate was 0 percent.Â
These programs are seen by many as necessary steps forward to introducing safer and more effective drug laws.Â But the response to Damien Eganâ€™s pilot shows that not everyone is on the same page.Â
City Hall officials have insisted that even if the pilot were to go ahead it would be subject to a â€śrobust evaluationâ€ť before any city-wide roll-out. And Sadiq Khanâ€™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.Â Â
Even though this pilot program hasnâ€™t even launched yet, itâ€™s been caught in the middle of a broader political battle over what the future of policing drugs should look like.
Todayâ€™s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.
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