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13 May 2022

Raise a spliff to Sadiq Khan, a politician brave enough to get real on drug reform

Only fear and prejudice stop the government from taking the evidence-based approach to drugs advocated by the Mayor of London.

By Rachel Cunliffe

“We’re so up our own arses in terms of thinking how clever we are as a nation. We won’t learn from anyone else at all. But there’s plenty of evidence out there.”

So spoke Professor David Nutt: medical doctor, expert in neuropsychopharmacology, and lifetime thorn in the side of governments who pursue an anti-science policy on drugs.

When I interviewed Nutt for the New Statesman last year on the hypocrisy of politicians who take a hard line on drugs despite their own personal approach to recreational use (Michael Gove, David Cameron, Boris Johnson), he was scathing. The evidence from across the world — on drug reform in general and on cannabis in particular — is irrefutable: prohibition does not work, and it costs lives. It enables a thriving black market that lines the pockets of gangs, criminalises ordinary people for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, and doesn’t even reduce consumption. “Anyone can get cannabis anywhere [in the UK]… and it’s illegal,” Nutt told me. “So at what point do you accept that the policy has failed?”

The answer for most politicians is never. It’s more politically expedient to bury your head in the sand and reel off easy soundbites about the harm of drugs than it is to acknowledge the evidence and risk pearl-clutching Daily Mail headlines. Unless you’re Sadiq Khan, that is.

The Mayor of London has been on a tour of the US this week, ostensibly for the purpose of boosting trade links and tourism via the medium of self-promoting photo shoots. The trip has been derided as a publicity stunt, which isn’t entirely unfair given the cringe-worthy snaps of Khan posing with James Corden and Hillary Clinton. But one photo in particular stands out: Khan standing wide-eyed in the middle of a cannabis cultivation farm in Los Angeles, flanked by towering marijuana plants and looking dazed.

The shock this photo has caused is striking. Cannabis has been legal for medicinal purposes in California since 1996, and was legalised for recreational use in 2016. Eighteen states, and Washington DC, have legalised it fully, and medicinal marijuana is available in 38. If Khan had wanted to light up in front of the cameras, he would have been breaking no law; a shot of him with a bong or a brownie would be equivalent to the endless photos of politicians trying the local beers, wines or spirits of wherever they are visiting.

Khan didn’t do that, of course. He stood next to some plants. Yet so conditioned have we become, thanks to the scaremongering rhetoric of the war on drugs, that for a politician to be in a room where a perfectly legal substance is grown is a radical act.

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Radical too was Khan’s announcement of a London Drugs Commission to examine cannabis decriminalisation. It shouldn’t be, given the experience of other countries (not just the US but Canada, Portugal, the Netherlands and other European states), namely a reduction in both violent crime and drug deaths. Portugal, which decriminalised the personal possession of all drugs in 2001, has lower drug use and fewer drug-related deaths than the EU average. The UK has the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe (largely due to Scotland), and last year deaths were the highest on record. We are a world leader — and not in the way Boris Johnson would like.

If the UK isn’t ready to listen in the case of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, maybe it could at least start with cannabis. Legal frameworks are still being worked out and questions remain around regulating strength, advertising rules, and at what level legal weed should be taxed to optimise state revenue while still dismantling the black market. Some studies have shown a slight increase in use after rules are relaxed, others no increase at all.

It’s worth remembering that decriminalisation and legalisation are not the same (maintaining a legal ban while turning a blind eye to possession risks handing more power to drugs gangs), and that having federal restrictions in the US while states go their own way has created a murky grey area that has opened the door to exploitation. There are templates from abroad for how to handle drug reform successfully and lessons in what not to do. (As the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind recently put it, we don’t “have to make all the same mistakes that America has. I mean, we do eggs and cheese differently, too”.)

All of this, one hopes, will be considered by the London Drugs Commission. “We need to have an honest, open conversation about the evidence in relation to the history of cannabis and our laws in the UK and our experience of the health consequences in relation to crime and the community,” Khan explained, which seems painfully reasonable. Why wouldn’t the government want to assess whether its current policy is working (it isn’t) and whether there’s a better way (there is)?

The answer, unfortunately, is fear. Khan had barely floated the idea of taking a more evidenced-based approach to drugs before Priti Patel shot him down. The Home Secretary parroted the same line about how drugs “ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives” that we have heard since Richard Nixon launched his war on drugs 50 years ago, never stopping to wonder whether it might be prohibition that causes such devastation, rather than drugs themselves. Labour has also reiterated its opposition to legalisation — disappointing but unsurprising, given the party attacked the Liberal Democrats’ openness to drug reform in campaign leaflets for the local elections earlier in May.

On this issue, both Labour and the Conservatives are at odds with the public. Repeated polling has shown that British people back cannabis reform, and in 2018 it was estimated that legalisation, if done right, could earn the Treasury up to £3.5bn (the same amount, incidentally, that the government is hoping to save by axing 90,000 civil servants). What’s standing in the way is fear. Nutt, who has decades of experience trying to convince successive governments to look at the science, has seen that fear first-hand. He was fired over it. “We know that the vast majority of politicians want the drug laws changed, but they’re terrified,” he told me. Terrified of the backlash, of being accused of being soft on crime, of handing their opponents ammunition, even if that ammunition is aimed against policies that would save lives.

Khan may be a shameless self-promoter but his cannabis farm photoshoot shows he isn’t scared. If I were in California, I’d be raising a spliff to him right now.

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