As we approach into the Spring of 2022, plans for a decriminalisation trial in London are blossoming too. Sadiq Khan has announced he intends to test the effect of decriminalisation of cannabis and other common drugs in the area such as ketamine, for its use and possession, in three London boroughs, for 18-24 year olds. Importantly, this will not test its sale, and this will not include any other, more dangerous drugs, such as methamphetamine.
Decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. The key difference here is the penalty that offenders may expect for drug possession or use. Under the current law, cannabis is criminal, meaning its use, possession and sale will be met with criminal conviction. Decriminalisation would mean, in this instance ignoring its sale, offenders will be met with civil repercussions rather than criminal. Sadiq Khan has gone on to propose that offenders might be met with obligations to attend counselling or classes on drug use, similar to that seen for speeding.
The current position in the UK is one that has criminalised those drugs Khan seeks to trial. But why have drugs generally been criminalised in the first place? This is an important context to understand before understanding what Khan is seeking to achieve.
The current leading legislation on the control of such substances is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. From the outset, the name of the legislation implies the main reason for its controlling effect on use of such substances is to reduce ‘misuse’ of such substances. From reading its provisions, it is clear that the Misuse of Drugs Act seeks to restrict the use of such substances, because of their inherent relation to crime, death, and addiction, what is known in western culture as ‘the war on drugs’.
Therefore, so far, we may conclude that the current approach the UK is taking on the so called ‘war on drugs’ is that prohibition, with proper enforcement from law enforcement, will lead to an effective decrease of drug use, and thus less crime, mortality rate from drugs and addiction.
However, the current approach is not tackling these issues effectively. Some journalists such as Melanie Philips propose this is because the law enforcement is not stringent enough with applying these laws, and others such as Carl Hart propose prohibition will always fail to tackle the ‘war on drugs’. Of the two opinions, history has favoured Hart’s view, as seen with America’s alcohol prohibition, which lead to the running of easyspeak bars and moonshine production. It’s clear that demand will always create the necessity for supply, therefore criminalisation will not have the effect it sets out to do.
In 2016, the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) briefing paper stated ‘drug use rates do not change or dramatically increase where the laws are changed to decriminalise drug use’. Considering public opinion, DPMP provided stats from Australians on their opinion what the action against people in drug possession should be. Similarly, to the majority interest in decriminalisation as a start in the UK, the Australian’s favoured decriminalisation, and generally, the statistics showed a skew towards more lenient and non-criminal actions against offenders. So, if there is no change in its use, yet decriminalisation is favoured by the public, what is the purpose of decriminalisation and what are those supporters expecting?
Khan has mentioned that his administration will be researching the effects of decriminalisation by looking at how other countries have gone about this task, expressly mentioning Portugal. Prior to 2001, Portugal had a big drug problem in its nation, as there were high addiction rates and high mortality rates. As a result, Portugal decriminalised all its illicit substances. But why did they do this?
Portugal’s manifesto and aim of this move was to first and foremost, make an expressly understood statement that the country understands the issue as a health crisis, and not a criminal crisis. This was hugely important as it created greater trust between the state and the people. Portugal pushed for dissuasion rather than punishment. It is this model that led to lower drug deaths, and lower conviction rates due to drug possession and use, encouraging people to change their lifestyle rather than attempt to strong arm the general public into doing so.
So, is Khan right in seeking to trial its effect in the UK, or is it as ‘dopey’ as some journalists believe it is?
Many other countries in the EU have decriminalised at least some illicit substances, which implies that in the modern age, this is something that might be expected from western countries, as they recognise the current approach to tackling this issue is not punishment, but rather education on drugs true effect on people, and taking a more understanding approach based on trust rather than a distrustful and demonised one. It is too early to say if decriminalisation can be expected from the UK, as Starmer and Boris state they do not endorse such action. However, I find it to be an interesting prospect to move forward towards in the future. Doug Fine’s book, Too High to Fail, provides interesting passages on what the future could look like where we embrace the flower known as marijuana. This ‘new green economic revolution’ has the potential to be used as an effective medical treatment for anxiety, depression, and issues as serious as brain tumours. It also has such a huge economic potential that it would be massively in the interest of the UK to consider what the country’s economic position might look like by welcoming the change Khan seeks to pursue.
Khan’s proposal is a huge step towards that seen commonly around other western countries, however it is a nervous one at that. With other big political names such as Boris Johnson and Kier Starmer opposing its conception, it leaves the UK in a tricky position to move forward. Although there are many criticisms for this change, there are also many supporters who are considering the socio-economic impacts this could have and importantly the relationship between the state and its people. Portugal provides the best example, as it made clear by its decriminalisation that the state is no longer there to talk down to its citizens, but rather to be understanding and provide support. Other factors such as the economic boost it would provide are huge factors that could come into play far in the future if the UK ever decides to legalise illicit substances such as marijuana, as seen in America. Ignoring the demand for such a huge audience would be silly, as the UK is in need of such a economic revitalisation. Furthermore, the decriminalisation and legalisation allow the state to better control these substances, ensuring they are pure, which will lead to less mortality rates as a cause of uncertainty in what the substance contains, which is a key issue that has derived from the lack of authoritative product control. In general, this move could see the UK follow in the footsteps of Portugal, America and other western states that have had success in this area.