When asked about easing the UK’s cannabis policy, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was not hesitant to reveal that he opposed the liberalisation of drug laws. He stated: “When I was director of public prosecutions, I prosecuted many, many cases involving drugs and drug gangs and the criminality that sits behind. And it causes huge issues to vulnerable people across the country.”
When asked about the possibility of decriminalision, he says: “I’ve never gone down that route…I have supported schemes where you’re not arrested for [cannabis possession], you’re not prosecuted for it. And I believe in that.”
His comments indicate a drastic shift away from the previously expressed sentiments of the Labour leadership. In a 2020 report published by the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform (LCDPR), the group called for a “progressive approach to drugs”. It further recommends a regulation of the cannabis market with appropriate controls on access, safety and potency.
Currently, cannabis is designated as a Class B drug in the UK, and possession of the drug can be punished by up to five years in prison. Medical cannabis can be legally prescribed to some patients.
Starmer’s views regarding the decriminalisation of cannabis primarily concern criminal activities and violence implicating vulnerable persons. While coming from a place of good intentions, this view is one that, I believe, fails to distinguish between the nuances of the drug trade and drug use.
If the conversation is spotlighted on protecting the community, then all evidence points toward decriminalisation.
Organised criminal groups are gaining increasing control of the drug market in the UK, occupying a large percentage of the annual £9 billion profit. Meanwhile, the cost of policing drugs remains upwards of £100 million annually, in addition to the 1.5 million hours spent by the police working on cannabis related cases. Surely, it is fair to say that the ‘war on drugs’ has an emerging victor.
Focusing on a cost-benefit analysis of the drug trade, however, seems to be adopting an extremely narrow perspective. Saying of the war on drugs that ‘the benefits far outweigh the costs!’ insinuates a highly desensitised view to the lives lost in the process. Drug-related deaths are at a high in the UK, with 5,546 fatalities in 2018 observing an overall increase of 52% in the past decade, notwithstanding the exploitation of some 4,000 children in London alone as drug mules.
Organised crime networks involved in the drugs trade profit off the addiction and exploitation of communities throughout the country, with low-income persons and ethnic minorities disproportionately affected. It remains that they should be duly punished by the justice system. It must be emphasised that judicial legitimacy will in no way be undermined by decriminalisation policies. Rather, cannabis legislation should aim to transfer control away from unethical and unregulated criminal organisations into that of the government.
The truth is that drugs will always be in demand. If policies to curb drug-usage have proven to be of diminishing efficiency, perhaps it is time to consider shifting the strategy toward controlling supply. Decriminalisation, therefore, should prioritise harm reduction.
Drug checking directly reduces drug-related harm by offering transparent information of chemical components in the drugs, which can be strictly regulated by medical experts. A comprehensive support infrastructure can also be implemented for drug users seeking treatment without fearing stigmatisation or criminal charges.
The fundamental tenet of decriminalisation is to humanise drug users. It is a grave mistake to associate crime with drug use. A call to decriminalise cannabis is not one that pardons drug dealers and manufacturers who consciously choose to harm the community at large, but rather, a policy that extends fairness and compassion to drug users.
Decriminalisation would not downplay the drug’s negative effects, but much rather the contrary: it emphasises the proven medical conditions that either cause or are caused by cannabis-usage and can offer a targeted treatment plan, if necessary. Studies have revealed that circumstances of trauma, socio-economic status, mental health and even genetics result in heightened susceptibility to drug addiction.
In viewing drug use as a chronic illness, addicts can be offered rehabilitative harm-reduction programmes, a much more humane and efficient alternative, compared to the prosecution of over 15,000 people annually for cannabis possession.
Image: M. Marton Vicente via Creative Commons