London’s Mayor Stirs a Pot in the U.K. By Supporting Cannabis

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

A glimmer of hope for cannabis reform policy in the United Kingdom has been raised by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, ahead of the English capital city’s mayoral election on 6 May.

Heavily favoured to earn re-election, Khan pledged that if he is successful he will  establish a new London Drugs Commission with the potential aim to decriminalise recreational cannabis.

It would mark a huge shift within the U.K., which aside from the realm of medical R&D has been slow-moving and somewhat cannabis-resistant. The primary aims cited by Khan involved long-held harm-reduction arguments – that violent and drug-related crime and its proceeds would be cut, as would the heedless criminalisation of young people. Khan’s commissioners are now encouraged to examine evidence from across the globe, and build on such research to make the case. “It’s time fresh ideas about how to reduce the harms drugs and drug-related crimes cause to individuals, families and communities,” said the mayoral candidate.

At a time when Europe’s recreational cannabis community is gearing up for its annual 420 celebrations, Khan’s call has been heralded by a pro-liberalisation majority in the U.K. But such a policy remains politically unsafe, and Khan’s announcement has been met frostily from both his own Labour Party and the Conservative government. Nevertheless, a groundswell of interest exists. Khan says that legalization would stem illegal drugs trade in the U.K., which costs the country £19 billion per year, and could add a possible revenue take of £1 billion. It might even make a political consensus. In 2019 a cross-party Commons health committee called for the U.K. government to consult on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use,  and advised that taking a health-based approach would both help users while reducing wider societal harms.

Khan’s initiative has been helped by a Survation survey of 2019, which found that 63% of London residents backed the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, versus 19% opposed to the idea. Across the U.K. as a whole, meanwhile, 47% backed legalisation, with 30% against – a significant political proportion in favour.

With the harm-reduction argument at the fore, the likeliest country to be used as an example is Portugal, where possession and consumption of drugs have been decriminalised since 2001, and which is therefore keenly watched by other European governments. Portugal had a drug problem prior to decriminalisation, which appears to have been ameliorated by the progressive policy, following which deaths from drug use and drug-related crime rates fell, leading to a prison population that dropped from 44% in 1999 to 21% in 2012. Despite a spike in experimentation and crime immediately after the law was enacted in 2001, things settled down and the experiment is now considered a success. With Portugal’s success, the traditionalist argument that cannabis serves as a “gateway drug” to harder substances has also been severely dented, conversely illustrating in the U.S. that legalised cannabis has been associated with a decreased rate of opioids fatalities.

Other countries are looking at cannabis legislation and regulation via the lens of societal harm reduction. The Netherlands’ pilot program to assess applications to grow recreational cannabis, known as the “controlled cannabis supply-chain experiment”, is bringing controlled legal imports from North America’s cannabis industry to drive out criminality endemic to the nation’s blind-eye system, which has seen the illegal economy generate as much as €4.8 billion a year despite a decline in the country’s infamous coffee shops.

Meanwhile, the risk-benefit ratio is not without anomaly: In Spain, a laissez-faire legal framework and a thriving market have led to an uptick in cannabis-related crime. So, questions of best-practice management remain critical for Khan’s London project.

In general, despite government inertia the idea of cannabis liberalisation finds fertile soil in the U.K. The nation’s CBD consumer market is thought to be the largest in Europe, currently worth £400 million. Khan’s initiative, if enacted, could also build on the fact that the U.K. has become one of the world’s largest exporters of medical cannabis. It would also augment London’s growing stature as a centre for cannabis investment, with consultancies, research, and cannabis-focused finance groups headquartered in the city, and investors poised to pounce. Cannabis stocks can now trade on the London Stock Exchange, with recent excitements caused by cannabis firms such as Kanabo Group and MGC Pharmaceuticals listing on London markets.

A 2018 report by the lobbying group TaxPayers’ Alliance suggested that legalization could save £890 million per year on legal and medical relief. Whether Khan’s Drug Commission comes to pass, at some point economic arguments are likely to outweigh moral qualms, leaving the U.K. in pole position as a European cannabis centre to rival the Netherlands and other centres.