LAST week saw the British Government reinstate its hardline position on drug policy, as Policing Minister Kit Malthouse announced new headline-grabbing policies aimed at cracking down on football fans and ‘middle class’ drug users.
Mr Malthouse announced the new policies during the National Drug Summit, an event which capped off a week of public and often heated debate around drug policy in the UK, following the continued fallout from the London Mayor’s launch of the new London Drugs Commission.
While mainstream media outlets and MPs across the political spectrum have repeatedly pointed to the fact Sadiq Khan has no power to change the law, the commission’s ambition to provide a public and evidence-based examination of UK’s drug policy is a ‘key element’ in enacting change, according to advocacy groups.
Alongside the far less widely publicised Home Affairs Committee inquiry into drugs policy, which held its second illuminating round of oral evidence last week, these initiatives demonstrate an growing ‘appetite and need for reform based on evidence’ in the UK.
London Drugs Commission
On May 12 2022, Mr Khan officially announced the launch of the London Drugs Commission, a new entity led by Tony Blair’s former Secretary of State for Justice Lord Charlie Falconer QC.
The commission will look specifically at the ‘effectiveness of our drugs laws and policy on cannabis’, with a focus on reducing harm in London’s ‘historically marginalised communities’.
While more independent experts, criminal justice experts, public health, politics and community relations leaders will reportedly be brought into the commission ‘this summer’, the University College London (UCL) has been appointed to provide evidence for the commission.
Once it has drawn its conclusions, the commission will ‘make a series of policy recommendations’ for the Government, police, criminal justice system and public health services.
The announcement has been widely politicised, with both Conservative MPs and members of Mr Khan’s own Labour party stating it was likely to ‘go down like a bucket of sick’ with voters.
Due to the widespread political backlash, and sitting-Government’s repeated commitments to clamping down on drugs, the commission’s recommendations are unlikely to become anything but recommendations.
Though some have pointed out that as the London Mayor effectively acts as the Police and Crime Commissioner, meaning Mr Khan could have a real impact on police priorities in the capitol, Volteface’s Head of Operations Katya Kowalski told BusinessCann the commission’s real value is in bringing real-world evidence into this public, now mainstream debate.
“Whilst the commission can only make recommendations and we are unlikely to see any change overnight, it will add to the mounting evidence that supports the need for reform.
“Drugs remain a controversial topic that instigate strong gut reactions on both sides of the political spectrum. This means the discussion easily sways into arguments based on ideology rather than evidence.
“I do think that public debate and the mainstream media discussing cannabis is valuable. But it’s essential that the facts are spelled out – it is unhelpful when headlines are released in the realms of ‘Khan attempts to legalise cannabis’ when what he is really doing is gathering evidence around what models of regulation would work in the UK and putting forward recommendations in line with that.”
Home Affairs Committee Inquiry in to Drug Policy
Though the London Drugs Commission has drawn a backlash from across political lines, more positive progress was made last week during the second meeting of the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into drug policy.
The inquiry’s first session, which Conservative MP Simon Fell said ‘changed some of (his) relatively long-held beliefs about how we classify (drugs) and how we should be dealing with enforcement’, focused largely on the now 50-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act, examining whether it was still fit for purpose.
In its most recent oral session, held on May 18 2022, speakers from organisations including Drug Science, Imperial College London, Manchester University’s Pharmacy School, University of Western Australia and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) examined the ‘scientific evidence base underpinning the UK’s approach’.
The apparent disconnect between evidence and policy was laid bare in an exchange in which the ACMD said that they had not examined the evidence surrounding cannabis for 14 years.
The ACMD’s co-chair of the Recorvery Committee Dr Emily Finch said: “The ACMD hasn’t looked at cannabis since 2008. We haven’t been commissioned by Government to look at the harms of cannabis. We also haven’t self-commissioned ourselves…. We haven’t reviewed the scientific evidence for 15 years.
She added that while it has ‘done a significant amount of work on’ the provision of medical cannabis, it ‘hasn’t looked at the use of illicit cannabis.’
When asked whether the ACMD should have a ‘proper look again’ at the illegal use of cannabis and its ‘social harm impact’, Dr Finch replied that while there was a case for it, ‘we have a lot of other priorities.’
The ACMD’s Chair Dr Owen Bowden-Jones explained that the committee’s priority had been on substances leading to drug-related deaths.
“Very few people, to our knowledge, die from cannabis, but very large numbers of people die from opioid-related substances… It is quite appropriate that the ACMD is placing its resource into looking at that issue.”
A Change in Attitudes
Though neither of these initiatives is likely to lead to any significant alterations in policy, Ms Kowalski believes they ‘demonstrate a stark shift in attitude around drug policies and a realisation that our current approach is not working.’
Last year YouGov published a poll revealing that 52% of Britons now support cannabis legalisation in the UK, up from 48% in 2019.
Drug Science’s Head of Research Anne Schlag told BusinessCann that the shift in public opinion and recent public discourse driven by both initiatives were vital to pushing through positive change.
“The majority of the UK public are now in favour of legalising cannabis, so there has already been a clear shift in attitudes the past decade.
“This also means that current politics and most politicians urgently need to catch up- they are the ones preventing positive change (which is desired by the public) here. Public discourse, the public shift in attitudes and the pressure that comes with it are key elements to this change.”
While the gap between public opinion and policy is nothing new, Ms Kowalski argues that the very existence of these committee’s points to a growing shift in opinions within Government also.
“I don’t think the Committee would have issued this evidence inquiry if they weren’t interested in recommending alternative policies.
“This, coupled with the Mayor’s Commission announcement, is a clear indication of an interest in reform. We’ve still got a long way ahead of us – Khan may not have the power to legalise cannabis but these incremental steps will pay off in the long run
“Both initiatives demonstrate acknowledgement of the public’s changing attitudes toward drug policy. Over 50% of the UK public would like to see cannabis legalised – it is frustrating that our government is unwilling or oblivious to acknowledge this. I think the only way to see meaningful change is through mounting public pressure.”