Decriminalising cannabis is a lethal mistake, writes ANDY COOK

I’ve seen how cannabis destroys neighbourhoods. For Sadiq Khan to decriminalise it is a lethal mistake, writes ANDY COOK, CEO of the Centre for Social Justice

More teenagers were stabbed or shot to death in London in 2021 than ever before. 

Two of the total of 30 were killed last Thursday night — a talented 15-year-old musician in South London and a boy just one year older in Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge constituency. 

It’s an appalling toll, one that shames Britain and brings untold grief to families. 

And, while we may not ever know for certain the reasons behind these tragic deaths, it is an inescapable fact that in a vast number of cases, the cannabis trade is to blame. 

Sadiq Khan reportedly wants to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis

Some of these dead children are members of drugs gangs, others are innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time, or victims of mistaken identity. But the burgeoning drugs economy is the real killer. 

Yet the response of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has not been to crack down on drugs and protect the citizens in his charge, but to do the opposite — and start to decriminalise these substances.

Delusional

Under a new scheme, police in Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich boroughs will be told not to arrest young people caught in possession of cannabis. 

It is also understood that the amnesty may extend to all class B drugs, including ketamine and dangerous amphetamines like ‘speed’. 

I cannot fathom what Khan thinks he is doing. It staggers me. 

Perhaps he imagines he can break London’s endless cycle of crime he seems unable to get a grip on by simply decriminalising the peddling of drugs — because if it’s no longer illegal, the pushers by definition will not be criminals. 

But that is plainly delusional. The reality is that criminal gangs will see their turnover soar as trade increases. And that will attract more crime, not less. 

The gangs already control a highly organised network stretching across the whole of Britain, the so-called County Lines gangs which rely on children to transport the drugs out to the provinces. 

Khan’s policy will only encourage and strengthen them. As head of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), I am no advocate of hardline, bring back-flogging punishment. 

We have argued for a long time that heavy-handed sentencing is a completely impractical solution to drug crime. 

For young offenders, like those on the fringe of gangs, the best answer is to encourage them into better lives — through rehabilitation, education and family support. 

All the evidence shows that young people with full-time jobs have immeasurably better life chances. 

But it is impossible to steer people on to that right path if the alternative is being openly promoted as legal and attractive by London’s mayor and its police — the very people who should be enforcing the law.

I know how destructive cannabis is because, for 12 years, I ran a charity in the Midlands called Twenty Twenty. Targeting disadvantaged young people with broken lives from the poorest parts of Derby, Leicester and Loughborough, we did everything we could to turn their lives around. 

At best, it was a difficult job. But when the kids turned up stoned, it was impossible. 

Under a new scheme, police in Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich boroughs will be told not to arrest young people caught in possession of cannabis (stock photo)

A report in the statistical journal Significance in 2013 listed symptoms of cannabis psychosis: ‘Hallucinations, difficulty thinking, a reduced ability to solve problems, apathy and a distorted sense of reality.’ 

There is also a wealth of evidence linking the drug to increased risk of heart attacks, infertility, and a range of other psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. 

That mirrors exactly what we saw, witnessing the enormous damage it could do, both in the disruption to the daily slog of school and in the long-term damage to young brains. 

I used to visit the inner city estates and discuss individual problems with the families, especially the mothers. 

Their frustration and despair was heartbreaking. Many told me that, if they ever caught their children with drugs, they would ‘go ballistic’. 

But what use was that when the police were turning a blind eye? Families often expressed a desire to see more stop-and-search on the streets. Their children were dying. Far better for teens to be subjected to the inconvenience of a search if that meant there were fewer knives and handguns. 

Mr Khan’s big idea runs directly counter to what those families wanted and needed. 

It will amount to no more than a wishy-washy, middle class pipe-dream imposed on communities that often feel powerless to protect their own children — and desperately desire more help from the police, not less. 

A major deterrent to drug abuse is the threat of legal penalties. If people fear the chance of arrest, some will, of course, ignore it — but many will think twice.

Addictive

A 2018 survey by the CSJ found that if cannabis is decriminalised in Britain, as it has been in some U.S. states such as Colorado and Oregon, around a million new people will try it. 

They don’t currently use it, and the chief deterrent is the fact that it is illegal. Figures differ on how addictive cannabis can be. 

Our data suggests about one in ten users become hooked, but that is a cautious estimate — a survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found one in five teenagers who smoked the drug casually for three years developed an addiction. 

A proposed pilot programme would see young adults caught with the Class B drug offered speeding course-style classes or counselling instead of arrest. . Pictured: In April, thousands of marijuana fans flocked to Hyde Park to openly smoke cannabis as they celebrated ‘420 day’

Even at the lower end of those projections, that means decriminalisation equates to roughly 100,000 new addicts, putting a greater burden on our already overstretched health service. 

The only people who would benefit from Khan’s plan are the gangs. Families suffer, young people see their prospects and their health wrecked, and society bears the cost. 

It is hard enough for youths with limited job prospects and no money as it is: they see a chance to earn more cash than they could ever imagine, in a way that won’t affect their benefits, and they do not understand or care how dangerous it could be.

Dramatic 

But if you believe that if the police catch you, you will have a criminal record — and you could even go to prison — perhaps some will think it’s not worth it. The power of that argument is wiped out by the mayor’s plan. 

Other countries have tried this experiment and suffered the repercussions. 

In a public clean-up campaign in 2020, Amsterdam’s coffee shops — famed for decades for trading in cannabis and a popular attraction for tourists — were barred from selling to non-residents. 

The effect on public safety was dramatic. The shops had started drawing undesirable visitors to the city — what a Dutch government report called ‘a motley crew of drugs criminals, a ring of hustlers and parasites, middle-men and extortionists’. 

Khan’s plans risk attracting exactly that kind of drug tourist to London. 

He seems to feel it is a risk worth taking. But he has not spent the years I have meeting children and young adults in addiction clinics and pupil referral units, or in police and prison cells — their lives destroyed by drugs. 

And those are the ones lucky enough to be alive. Any policy that promotes drug use is a risk too great to take. 

And when faced with the reality of those damning teenage murder statistics — the reality of lives cut short and families ripped apart — is that really too hard to understand?

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