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London Drug Diversion Pilot Victim Of Misinformation And ‘Backwards, Stigmatising Attitude Towards Cannabis’

IN JANUARY, news that London Mayor Sadiq Khan was planning on launching a drug diversion pilot scheme in the capital met with widespread condemnation from MPs and the media alike, with prominent voices warning it would ‘effectively decriminalise cannabis’.

Months later, shocking news of a 15-year-old school girl being strip-searched for cannabis by the Met Police has placed the debate around UK institutions’ attitude towards drugs and young people back into the spotlight, with a markedly different tone.

In the first in a series of interviews with Cannabis Europa London 2022’s confirmed speakers, BusinessCann speaks to Voltface’s Head of Operations Katya Kowalski about the UK’s attitudes towards cannabis, drug diversion schemes, and whether media coverage aligns with public opinion.

Katya I wonder if you could start by telling us a little about yourself and the work you do over at Volteface. 

Thanks for having me on. I’m Katya from Volteface and head of operations there. I’ve been working at Volteface for about a year and a half now. 

I’ve got a background in psychology, and that’s what initially led me to an interest in drug policy through an interest in addiction and addictive behaviours, and how we can reduce the harm of drugs. 

Primarily Volteface is a think tank and an advocacy organisation and our overarching mission is to reduce the harm of drugs both for individuals and towards society. Our philosophy and ethos generally is focused around trying to engage difficult to reach groups around drug policy, convincing primarily social conservatives that drug policy reform is a necessary step forward. 

The majority of our work focuses around bringing in new voices to the drug policy debate, engaging new people and bringing in new frames to the debate, and trying to engage a wide variety of partners on it. 

We look at innovative narratives around what sensible reform looks like. So a lot of the work we do focuses on recreational cannabis. The pilot schemes and diversion schemes in London are one of those. 

We do a lot of work around medical cannabis as well, broadening access. We’re working around the persisting issues that we see in medical cannabis in the UK. That’s a bit of a whistle stop tour around the work we do.

I think a good place to start is the shocking story of a 15 year-old-girl who was dragged out of an exam by the police and strip searched, reportedly because she was suspected of having cannabis on her person. I wonder what your thoughts are on this incident, and what you think it says about attitudes towards cannabis in the UK?

The news is absolutely awful and just really distressing. I think what it shows is that there’s still very much a very backward approach towards cannabis in the UK, especially amongst authority institutions like the Met Police. 

I think it says a lot about the UK’s attitudes towards drugs and drug policy, but also, mainly institutional racism within the Met Police. I think it’s quite important to ask ourselves whether the same kind of approach would have been taken if they could have smelt, or thought that they could have smelled alcohol on her, I think the approach they would have taken would have been drastically different. 

So I think overall it shows that there’s still a persisting, backward, stigmatising, and racist approach to cannabis. But I think what’s interesting and important to touch on is that the Met’s approach is definitely not in line with public opinion. And I think there’s quite a large disconnect between authority structures, like the Met Police, like mainstream media outlets, and government institutions, compared to what the public think and perceive. 

I think a lot of these authority structures are quite out of the loop and out of line with what the public want to see on drug reform. With the recent YouGov stats, public support is extremely high for cannabis reform. But things like the Met’s approach show that they’re still out of touch with this and out of touch with the need for reform.

This debate around disproportionate reactions to cannabis usage among young people has only really just left the public consciousness. In January there was news of a new pilot scheme proposed by Sadiq Khan for three boroughs in London. Am I right in thinking that Volteface was involved in making recommendations for this pilot?

Yeah Volteface was commissioned by a London borough to look into and investigate disproportionate arrests and representation of BAME communities within the criminal justice system, particularly looking at low level possession drug offences. 

We put together a series of recommendations around what kind of policy changes could help alleviate and address this issue. These recommendations were to be presented to Sadiq Khan, unfortunately, the report was leaked prior to this happening. 

Sadiq Khan has come out positively and in favour of these recommendations. The pilots that has been announced are across three London boroughs, Bexley, Greenwich and Lewisham. 

The trial is a diversion scheme by which people under the age of 25 caught in possession of cannabis won’t be put through the criminal justice system and arrested. 

Instead they’ll be put through a diversion scheme, which essentially means diverting them away and  putting them through necessary measures, whether that be drug education, drug rehabilitation, treatment, or a series of well being services. 

So really getting to the crux of why they may have been in possession of drugs, and whether they’ve got a problematic relationship with drugs, or whether it was a one time drug possession offence.

I think one of the most interesting things about the pilot was the media and political reaction to it, considering similar schemes have been launched in around a dozen different areas including Thames Valley, for a number of years.  Why do you think this particular pilot received such widespread condemnation?

I think there’s a number of reasons why it received such widespread media coverage and condemnation. In reality, diversion schemes have been launched and have been running up and down the country in a variety of different areas for a while.

One of the reasons for the backlash I think is because it’s happening in the capital, London News tends to be kind of picked up and talked about a little bit more. 

But I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that it was leaked, and the way in which it was framed in the media because the report was leaked. 

I think there was a lot of room for misinformation and misinterpretation amongst mainstream media outlets around what the pilot scheme is actually setting out to do. 

There’s a lot of conflation around whether it was decriminalisation, whether it was diversion, whether it was legalisation. Obviously, the term diversion isn’t super well known within the mainstream media, so a lot of media outlets conflated it with decriminalisation.

Some media outlets even mentioned that it was decriminalising ketamine and speed, which is incorrect. I think a lot of this just comes down to the fact that mainstream media outlets love stories on drugs, and whether that’s painting drug reform in a positive light or a negative light, it’s something that tends to draw attention. 

And people don’t really sit idly by when it comes to their opinions on drugs, people feel quite strongly about either wanting to see reform within our drug laws, or on the other hand, having a very prohibitionist ideology. 

I wonder if you can clarify for anyone who might not know, what the real difference is between these diversion schemes and the decriminalisation and legalisation. 

Decriminalisation means that possessing cannabis or a specific drug is not a criminal offence, but the purchasing of the drug isn’t regulated and isn’t legalised. 

Diversion is a little bit different. Many say it’s a halfway point to decriminalisation, which is somewhat correct. It basically means that people caught in possession of a drug or not put through the criminal justice system, but they’re also not just let off the hook.

What diversion tries to do is prevent problematic drug use and get to the root cause of why someone might be in possession of a drug. It’s really a positive step forward for reform. 

It’s a lot better than criminalising people needlessly, particularly as criminalising, especially young people for possessing a drug, doesn’t get to the root cause of why they might be in possession of it.

Do you think that it’s possible to roll this out across the UK given the extra resources it requires?

I think so. I think there’s a couple of things to touch on with this. Firstly, diversion schemes are a really useful way of freeing up police time, especially for low level possession offences that are not violent. 

These people are simply possessing a couple of grams of cannabis, they shouldn’t be taking up police time, especially in a city like London where there’s a lot of violent and dangerous crime going on. 

As I mentioned previously, the schemes are already happening up and down the country in very localised areas and the evidence from them is extremely positive, it’s reducing reoffending rates.  

If we were to see this rolled out in London, especially within the three boroughs, I think it’s a really valuable way of gathering evidence and data to see what this looks like on the ground. 

I think another thing to touch on is that this isn’t a widespread policy change. It’s a pilot scheme, essentially an experiment and an opportunity to gather evidence to see what this looks like in practice. 

I’m very confident that the results will be extremely positive, given the kind of evidence we’re already seeing.

Of the two stories we’ve talked about so far, there has been a huge difference in the media and public’s reaction to each. On the one hand there is public and political outcry at the Met Police’s actions, on the other there is condemnation at attempts to limit such severe reactions to drug possession. Why do you think this is?

I think it is really interesting. I think the nature of the two stories are different, having a 15 year old girl strip searched and then found to not be in possession of cannabis is going to lead to public outcry. 

Whereas I think proposing what was presented as a widespread policy change, when in fact it wasn’t really, social conservatives and people with more of a prohibitionist mindset saw this as starkly problematic. 

I think it’s quite interesting seeing the difference in the media’s and MP’s reactions compared to public opinion. 

Obviously the media mainstream outlets painted these diversion schemes as legalisation and this being a massive problem, likewise, as many MPs writing to Sadiq Khan stating that they condemn these diversion schemes, with many of those MPs actually having diversion schemes being rolled out in their constituencies. 

And then you compare that to public opinion and YouGov polls off the back of all of this news showing that public opinion for legalisation and for changing our cannabis policies, is it an all time high.

Tickets for Cannabis Europa London, which will take place between 28 – 29 June 2022 welcoming around 2,000 business leaders, investors and politicians are available here.

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