London Mayor Sadiq Khan has decided to change drug laws in the capital, with a pilot project that means young people will avoid prosecution if caught with a small amount of the substance.
Instead, authorities will require young people between the ages of 18 and 24 to take a drug awareness course to improve education and understanding of class B drugs.
The program is a new take on Khan, who is no stranger to inventive ideas when it comes to combating destructive habits and addiction.
Last April, he pledged to ban betting ads on the London Underground after an increase in compulsive gambling during the pandemic.
At the time, a manifesto pledged to fight against gambling addiction which “destroys lives and families”.
When it comes to Class B drugs, however, Khan clearly believes that strict action is counterproductive.
The move comes after London police have come under heavy criticism for people who were tested for drugs at a party during the holidays. Officers took swabs from the hands of the revelers and conducted random searches.
Although the action was seen as voluntary, many social media users question its legality, saying it violated civil liberties and was another example of authoritarian policing.
A spokesperson for the mayor stressed that the authorities cannot simply “stop their way out of the problem”.
The statistics back it up: A recent report from the Department of Justice found that around a quarter of UK drug offenders reoffended within a year.
Getting young people through the criminal justice system demoralizes many and often pushes them to commit other crimes.
Instead, according to the mayor, the new program will aim to provide young people with support and education, and “permanently divert them from drug use and crime”.
The pilot will cover the city boroughs with high conviction rates in that region, Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich, before expanding the policy across the capital, if successful.
When news of the new policy broke, media sources were quick to jump on it.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the mayor wanted to expand the program to all Class B drugs, including speed and ketamine, while others even said he aimed to decriminalize all drugs in the capital.
Members of the Conservative Party also opposed the proposals, fearing that Khan’s soft stance could lead to further loosening of drug laws.
Mr Khan’s spokesperson denied the claim, however, saying the policy would only apply to small amounts of cannabis.
On the other side of the spectrum, the mayor has also been told that the project does not go far enough; that in fact, there are already policies in place that encourage police not to hand over criminal records for possession of cannabis.
Professor Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, called on the mayor to do more.
He referred to research by various health authorities which concludes that there is very little evidence that decriminalization leads to other crimes.
The professor has previously called for a “de facto decriminalization” in London, where the mayor would work with the police commissioner to introduce a new program of “hijacking” across the city.
Either way, the mayor is walking a line between two factions and risks upsetting many people with the new proposals.
The decriminalization of drugs elsewhere
Sadiq Khan’s new policy may draw some criticism, but it pales in comparison to measures taken in other countries.
In addition to the traditional marijuana hotspots of Amsterdam and Colorado, several US states, including South Dakota and New Jersey, moved to legalize the drug last year.
The measures have been a hit with American citizens, the majority of whom believe marijuana should be legal for recreational use.
Taking it one step further, Oregon recently decriminalized all drugs, with the capital Portland living up to its reputation as a progressive city on recreational drugs.
That said, adults are only allowed to carry an ounce of cannabis at a time, including tourists.
Cities around the world, including Montevideo and Vancouver, are also taking a cannabis-friendly approach, making Sadiq Khan’s new policy tame.
Greater drug awareness and education appear to be central to these approaches, meaning that convicted drug addicts are often more likely to see a counselor than a police officer in many parts of the world.
London seems to be caught between two ideologies – the traditional and the progressive – and the mayor’s challenge is to bridge this gap.
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