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To Stop UK Drug Policy Being Based On ‘Politics And Emotions’ We Need A ‘Proper, Rational Evidence-Based Conversation’ Around Cannabis

With a general election looming, drugs policy in the UK could soon become a hot button issue for both politicians and the public.

Ahead of her appearance at Cannabis Europa London 2023, we spoke to Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey Lisa Townsend on the risks of making assumptions about public views, the government’s changing attitudes towards cannabis, and the role the cannabis industry can play in helping police reduce drug-related harm.

Hi Lisa, thanks for joining us. For our readers who may not be aware, could you tell us a bit about your career and your role as Surrey PCC?

Yes, of course. I was elected as Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner in May 2021, and before that, after studying law, I actually went into parliament and worked in the House of Commons for Conservative MPs and members of the House of Lords for 10 years.

I came out, went into the private sector working in financial services within Communications and Public Affairs for another few years before being elected as a service Police and Crime Commissioner.

It’s a brilliant role. I have to say it’s incredibly varied – it’s very, very broad. Essentially, my job is to hold the Chief Constable to account in order to deliver for Surrey and what they want to see.

Another very important part of what my office does is commissioning services, whether that’s around reoffending or, of course, around substance misuse. But also for young people, making sure that they’ve got the best chances as well. So, it’s a really broad role. And, of course, the drugs debate does come into it as a really important part.

Now that the current administration has settled somewhat following a turbulent political year, where would you say the Government’s attitudes towards cannabis currently stand?

So, I think the big change at the moment has really been probably post-2018 when we had Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health and Sajid Javid in the Home Office, and I think they were taking what I would consider to be a relatively – certainly the Conservative Party – progressive view, particularly towards medical cannabis.

I think post-2019 we’ve seen a change under Boris Johnson in that cabinet. And actually, I think things are settling in now under Rishi Sunak. With Suella Braverman as Home Secretary and Steve Barclay as Secretary of State for Health, I think we are seeing a slightly tougher stance towards drugs.

Of course, it’s a massively emotive political subject. And I think that as we move towards the next general election, we’re actually going to see both of the main political parties actually move to really sort of try and almost out-tough each other on crime.

My concern is that we end up with coming up with drug policy and drug announcements that are actually more based on the politics and the emotions of how people feel about drugs and less on evidence-based policy.

Does this ‘tough on drugs’ stance prevent progressive debate on drugs policy taking place?

In my experience, there are generally and genuinely mixed views on drugs, and particularly on cannabis, within the Conservative Party. I think that’s always been the case.

I think that it is the case that those who perhaps take a harder line on it are more vocal about it. I think that’s certainly true amongst my fellow Police and Crime Commissioners.

I’ve spoken to Police and Crime Commissioners who would share my view and some who would perhaps go further in terms of legalisation as well. But I think we tend to be quieter about our views.

I think there’s certainly a perception that the public wants to see a tougher stance on drugs. And when it comes to drug-related crime, I think that’s absolutely the case. But when it comes to cannabis, whether it’s medicinal cannabis or regular cannabis, I think that, actually, attitudes within the public have shifted quite a lot.

And, certainly, when I speak to members of the public and ask them their views on things like cannabis being reclassified for Class A, which I know some of my colleagues particularly down in the southwest have suggested, in Surrey their view is almost overwhelmingly no, it shouldn’t.

They don’t expect more police resources to go on it. And, of course, if it’s reclassified, that’s exactly what happens.

But my concern is absolutely that with it being so emotive, with there being a vocal anti-rhetoric around it, that does stifle debate, and what we need is to be able to have a proper evidence-based conversation about it, rather than making assumptions.

I think it’s always very dangerous for politicians to make assumptions about public views. I think that’s true, whether you’re a local politician, or you’re a national politician. So, from my side, I’d really like to see a genuine debate where we listen to the experts and we make our mind up based on that evidence, not based on the things that we think might be true.

Given the current restrictions on budgets and resources being faced by many departments across the country, including the police, are your officers able to realistically achieve the renewed ‘crackdown’ on drugs announced at the beginning of last year?

I think, unfortunately, policing has never and probably never will have the resources that Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners would like us to have. But I think that it’s quite nuanced in terms of where we can spend our resources.

There will always be a very, very good reason to base where we use our resources on threat, harm and risk. And that’s certainly what happens in Surrey

I think when it comes to things like cannabis, we’ve got to look at it in two different ways. First of all, there’s the crime-related drug use.

When we look at the organised criminal gangs that we see in Surrey and elsewhere, that’s related to modern slavery, it’s related to the exploitation of young people and all of those other sorts of crimes. So, that is really important, and, unfortunately, we’re increasingly seeing those gangs moving into cannabis as well. That’s a really important place for police to put their resources.

The other side of that, of course, is the use of cannabis. I think that police resources, generally speaking – and I don’t think I’m saying anything that will come as a surprise to anyone – that’s generally not considered to be the high harm areas.

Where it does concern me is where we see a mixture of antisocial behaviour along with it, and those two do sometimes go hand in hand.

But in terms of resourcing, it’s actually the non-crime demand that worries me more. Mental health is a classic example of where police time is often taken up. So, I think that we need to make sure that we’re working closer with other agencies in order to deal with that.

Are there any simple solutions you’d like to see, which could both help reduce the burden on your officers and reduce harm caused by cannabis use?

I think the solutions are actually largely out there. Dame Carol Black recently undertook a fantastic review of drug use, and the government has recently produced its ‘From Harm to Hope’ ten-year strategy.

I think the implementation of that with some serious will behind it would make a big difference. And it does require partners across government and across the policing landscape and local authority landscape as well.

For far too often, substance misuse and drug harm have been put in the ‘too difficult box’ by local authorities, by healthcare, by government and, to some extent as well, by policing. So, I think a genuine policy that really does work together and collaboratively would make a big difference.

I would also like to see a serious conversation around moving towards a proper framework around cannabis. Not necessarily going as far as legalisation, but certainly looking at where the harm comes from and why that’s the case.

Because I think there are some compelling arguments around a step towards some form of legalisation, in terms of making sure that we can regulate the product, we can make sure that underage teens don’t have access to it, and perhaps use some of the money that comes back to put into mental health services – to put into substance misuse services.

So, I think what we need in this country is a very, very long-overdue proper rational evidence-based conversation around drug harm.

What role does the cannabis industry play in helping bring about these changes?

I think the industry has a huge role to play in terms of providing and helping to showcase some of that evidence-based work that I know they’ve been doing an awful lot of.

Also education, because education is one of the parts that’s missing here. It’s one of the bits that we don’t quite get to talking about. I think one of the great things the cannabis industry is doing is being very open about the potential harm. I think we can’t shy away from that if we’re going to have an honest conversation. It means honesty on both sides.

There is an enormous amount of legislation out there, as we all know, and it does feel like it increases on a weekly basis sometimes, so helping the police, whether it’s working with policing organisations such as the College of Policing, to be absolutely clear on things like when it’s legal for someone to be in possession of medical cannabis, or also working with policing to do everything that can be done in order to reduce that harm and to reduce the burden on policing.

Quite frankly, I think it’d be really welcome, certainly by me as a Police and Crime Commissioner, and I’m sure by all of my community in the government as well.

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