Why Boris Johnson should step in to save London’s WorldPride parade

The Mayor could make an important gesture to the LGBT community in London by helping with last-minute funding problems.

WorldPride, an event that was meant to showcase London as a leading city for LGBT rights and life, is fast resembling a paltry village fete. Now, it’s up to all those who honour Pride’s core values to call on Boris Johnson to intervene, and to step up and be counted themselves on Saturday, whatever the state of the parade.

If you don’t already know (and it’s been so little reported in the mainstream press you probably don’t), last Thursday WorldPride organisers Pride London revealed that a shortfall in funding, estimated to be around £66,000 by the LGBT VSO coalition Consortium, would mean drastic last-minute changes for this Saturday’s WorldPride parade day. No special events in Soho, a reduced rally in Trafalgar Square, no outdoor drinking and late licensing in Soho and most galling of all, no floats – floats which volunteers and LGBT charities have invested precious hours and pounds in constructing (with a minimum cost of £2,500 just to secure one), and are now out of pocket for having done so. Being unable to pay for the requisite policing means the procession start time has been moved forward by two hours, scuppering thousands of pre-arranged travel plans, and the official Pride magazine, which details the day’s schedule, has been out of date since it dropped off the press. The one million or so expected visitors are currently en route to a glorified march about town, something akin to what Pride London’s bizarre sleight of spin calls "the roots of the original Pride London rallies". But 40 years later, even Peter Tatchell, the founder of that first march, considers the comparison a travesty, not a compliment: “We’re not only letting down LGBT people in Britain, we’re also betraying the trust and confidence of LGBT people world-wide. This is an absolute disaster,” he said.

WorldPride in London should have been a spectacular party which reminded the international community of the ever-pressing need to fight for the rights of LGBT people, wherever they may be. Now, both the party and the political message have been egregiously undermined by the committee’s incompetence and nonsensical hesitancy in admitting it needed funding help. If the event is allowed to fall apart, London’s claim to being a city of tolerance and social liberalism will surely be tarnished.

Meanwhile, the LGBT community and those involved with the event are conflicted about the best way forward. In an open letter to Boris Johnson, a Facebook group called Shame London have asked the Mayor "to provide equivalent funding to the Notting Hill Carnival", which would enable the parade proper to be reinstated. Since the GLA has in fact already donated £100,000 to the event, others disagree that it is Johnson’s duty to step up to the plate. Some have called out for a celebrity donor, or Soho businesses that profit year round from the LGBT community, to put up the cash; others claim to be prepared to fundraise themselves. Pride London is the only official group with the means to distribute gathered funds, but vitriol for them is now so intense that many potential supporters would not pass a penny the committee’s way whatever it could now pull off. Somebody, then, must surely act as both a mediator and a guarantor.

Late last night, Pride London confirmed that it had secured the support of two sponsors, Smirnoff and QSoft in meeting some of the deficit, theoretically enabling the restoration of the floats to the parade and the closure of selected Soho roads, should the GLA agree. A final all-agencies meeting is planned for later today where the restoration of WorldPride now depends on the cooperation of Westminster Council and the Met, or a top-down order from the only man who can demand it: the Mayor himself.

Johnson’s reticence to intervene so far is not exactly reassuring. Would Johnson not have offered help immediately if the Jubilee celebrations had been financially mismanaged? Or the Olympics? Even the most cynical of us can see that the furore presents Johnson with the perfect political opportunity to up the Tories’ liberal cuddle-credentials. So what point has the Mayor made by so far failing to step in and save the day? That you can put a price on protecting and promoting human rights, and it stands at roughly £66K?

In the meantime, besides occupying City Hall, or picketing Boris’ home, what can any of the appalled rest of us do? Well, join the Shame London Facebook campaign and email the Mayor. Or use a similar letter drafted by Consortium to put pressure on the GLA to reinstate the original plans. And – most importantly - plan to attend WorldPride on Saturday, of course, however the event turns out. Even if we can’t party as hard as we were hoping, we can still do what thousands of other individuals still waiting for LGBT acceptance around the world cannot; march with our friends and loved ones and say to the world, it’s ok to be gay. Whatever Pride London or the authorities owed us in honesty or actions, we owe it to all those denied the right to LGBT identity to show that solidarity.
 

Boris Johnson at the Gay Pride march in London in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity