A new YouGov poll reveals widespread support for London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposed new pilot cannabis education scheme. A whopping 63% of Londoners say they support the Mayor’s plan to offer classes and counselling to under-25s caught with small quantities of cannabis instead of arresting them, with fewer than one in five opposed. The breadth of backing for the scheme among London’s voters is striking.
Supporters of both major parties are behind it, with 69% of Labour voters and 55% of Tories saying they want it to go ahead. There is no sign of NIMBYism over a new diversion policy either. Whilst the proposed trial is only proposed for three of London’s thirty-two boroughs (Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley) 59% of those polled said they would support a pilot taking place in their local area. As ‘controversial’ policy changes go, optimism about this one is remarkably high.
In politics as in life if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When the scheme was revealed last month, barely a week had passed before a sneering cabal of Tory MPs had come out of the woodwork to condemn the Mayor’s office for the plan. Prominent backbenchers including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith joined with serving government ministers Chris Philp and Greg Hands to complain that it would ‘effectively decriminalise cannabis’ in London and urged Khan to block City Hall providing any financial support for the scheme.
The pilot is a small, controlled trial of a minor policy change, but it has faced hostile opposition from all sides. The government, backbenchers, and even the opposition are unwilling to consider the benefits of cannabis decriminalisation, let alone legalisation. In this case, they conflate diversion, decriminalisation, and legalisation into one scary mess, convincing themselves that it’s all far too dangerous to warrant proper consideration.
According to the YouGov data, even those who are against the decriminalisation of cannabis are getting behind Khan’s pilot diversion scheme. Boris Johnson though, as with so many things, appears not to know the difference between the two.
“We have absolutely no intention of decriminalising dangerous and harmful substances for recreational use,” he said when asked about the plan. “Decriminalisation would leave organised criminals in control, while risking an increase in drug use, which drives crime and violence which blights our streets.” The Prime Minister is apparently unaware that many police authorities all around the country already successfully use similar schemes, and that diversion even features in the government’s own drug strategy paper released just a few weeks ago.
But the problem extends far beyond a misunderstanding of the policy; both Labour and Tory politicians remain resolutely opposed to a more progressive approach to drugs altogether, apparently under the false impression their voters demand the continued censure and stigmatisation of drugs. While they cling to outdated attitudes towards drug policy, public opinion shifts under their feet. If politicians fail to take notice now, they risk being caught out at the ballot box in the near future.
Politicians appear convinced the British people still hold regressive, punitive views on drugs. They seem to think voters cower in horror at the mere mention of cannabis and want anyone who has ever touched it locked away. That dynamic is probably not helped by endless speculation about what mythical ‘Red Wall’ voters want.
A picture is painted of stereotypical small-c conservative voters in the Midlands and the north of England who care only about Brexit and free speech, who like to watch Dad’s Army and moan about Meghan Markle. The Westminster bubble has convinced itself that to win an election, you must first win the hearts of this population of traditionalists who are opposed to change or innovation of any kind.
But the facts don’t bear that out. Voters today simply don’t see drugs the same way their parents and grandparents did – even in the Red Wall. According to the YouGov poll, fewer than one in three Londoners are concerned that the Mayor’s pilot scheme could lead to an uptick in drug use.
Britain is a progressive and open-minded country, and becoming more so by the day. This polling demonstrates that the public is waking up to the urgent need for reform, and Sadiq Khan is using his position to gently open the door to a new, more compassionate era of drug policy.
Khan has placed himself firmly on the right side of history, by remaining steadfastly unwilling to countenance even a trial education scheme, MPs in both major parties are condemning themselves to the opposite. Their opposition to the plan is built on a foundation of sand – dropping it sooner rather than later may well benefit their careers, as well as the country.