5 January 2022

Spare us the hysterics – London’s cannabis diversion pilot is a step in the right direction

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The golden rule of drug policy reporting in mainstream UK media is that it’s almost always nonsense. Leaked plans for a cannabis diversion scheme pilot in three London boroughs (Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich) have provoked a typically hysterical response, with various outlets incorrectly stating that Sadiq Khan is going to decriminalise cannabis, ketamine and speed.

In fact, the proposed trial exclusively focuses on under 25s caught with small amounts of cannabis. Rather than face arrest, fines and a possible criminal record, young Londoners found in possession of cannabis would be given expert support on drug harms and information on protecting themselves from exploitation by criminal gangs. Since the Mayor of London has no power to actually change the law, this would not amount to true decriminalisation: rather it would be a change to policing practices.

The politicians are just as guilty of misinformation. Hostile responses from Downing Street and Labour leader Keir Starmer both stated opposition to changing the law on drugs even though nobody has suggested doing so. And both major parties have actually supported similar diversion schemes covering all illegal drugs that have been operating successfully in other parts of the UK for years.

There are good reasons to move away from a criminal justice approach to cannabis possession. Much like prison time, criminal records – especially for young people – can ruin lives and perpetuate cycles of crime. They hurt employment prospects, hinder education opportunities, make it harder to travel and put up barriers to securing insurance and housing. Limited police and court resources are wasted dealing with low-level cannabis possession offences instead of tackling serious crimes. Those struggling with problem drug use are unwilling to seek support for fear of reprisals. And cannabis law enforcement involves the disproportionate use of stop-and-search in communities of colour that breeds distrust of the police.

Evidence from the UK and abroad shows that diversion schemes can help tackle these issues. Thames Valley Police saw 12-month reoffending rates drop from 70% for those put through the normal criminal justice route to 0% for those who were diverted. An Australian study of several pre-court diversion schemes for low-level drug offenders found that they cost between 84% and 94% less than formal charging. Participants in Durham Constabulary’s Checkpoint scheme, which applies pre or post-arrest diversion to other low-level offences, reported improved outcomes in relation to areas like housing, relationships and finances.

Concerns about such schemes are understandable but largely misguided. As a consequence of our decision to leave the drug market in the hands of entirely unregulated criminals, it’s conceivable that diversion could translate into higher overall drug use and therefore more revenue for drug gangs. But the Home Office has itself acknowledged that there is ‘a lack of robust evidence as to whether capture and punishment serves as a deterrent for drug use’. Deterrence can only be effective when there is a reasonable likelihood and severity of punishment, but the latest ONS data shows that over 2.5 million Brits used cannabis in the past year alone while just 124,000 arrests were made for cannabis possession from July 2020 to June 2021. And even opponents of the London diversion scheme like the Centre for Social Justice acknowledge that ‘getting tough’ on drug possession would be counterproductive. As the CSJ’s Andy Cook writes in a recent op-ed:

“We have argued for a long time that heavy-handed sentencing is a completely impractical solution to drug crime. For young offenders, like those on the fringe of gangs, the best answer is to encourage them into better lives — through rehabilitation, education and family support. All the evidence shows that young people with full-time jobs have immeasurably better life chances.”

Cannabis diversion schemes aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be viewed as the ideal end-goal of drug policy reform. Unlike legalisation, they do not address the crime, violence or health harms caused by the supply side of the illicit market. There’s no good reason why London’s proposed trial should be limited to cannabis or by age range: both of which are likely to dampen the programme’s positive impact. And whilst limiting the scheme to three London boroughs makes it easier to compare outcomes to a control group, it is also likely to distort other metrics by encouraging intercity cannabis tourism: a problem that plagued Lambeth’s pioneering ‘cannabis warning scheme’ in the early 2000s.

Our drug policy is a mess. Politicians back proven diversion schemes then row back at the first sign of media hostility. The Government boosts funding for drug treatment services whilst at the same time arguing for downright stupid ideas like stripping drug users of their driving licences or passports. But there’s good reason to view this with an optimistic lens; the lack of consensus at a local and national level could be a sign that we’re starting to explore alternatives, inching away from decades of failed prohibition.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.