Young people caught with small amounts of cannabis in parts of London will not be arrested or prosecuted under a pilot scheme backed by Mayor Sadiq Khan.
People under 25 found in possession of small amounts of weed in the boroughs of Lewisham, Bexley and Greenwich will instead be given expert help, ranging from advice on drug harms to being protected against exploitation. Instead of being taken into police custody or receiving a criminal record, offenders will be taken back to their family homes.
The plans, which were leaked to the Daily Telegraph, are due to be officially announced later this month. A spokesperson from the mayor’s office confirmed it was “actively involved in discussions around this scheme”, and awaiting final approval for funding.
The scheme was set in motion not by Khan but by the mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, who commissioned a report by drug reform NGO Volteface, seen by VICE World News, into the negative impacts of young people being criminalised for low-level cannabis offences in the borough.
The report, which guided the new pilot scheme in the capital, found young Black men in the south-east London borough were 2.4 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, and that 9 in 10 drug proceedings brought against young people in Lewisham were for cannabis possession. It said young Black men in Lewisham were “disproportionately affected by the policing of drugs and more negatively impacted by low level drug offences”.
“Young black men that the authors spoke to feel targeted, which leads to disenfranchisement and distrust in the police,” said the report. “Putting young black men through the criminal justice system does not address root causes of why someone might be in possession of drugs, and a criminal justice footprint could blight future prospects, potentially leading to a cycle of criminality.”
Egan, who thinks cannabis should be legalised, told VICE World News he was “pleased to be in discussions about the possibility of a diversion pilot for low level cannabis offences” because “the current approach to policing drug offences is disproportionate and is not working”.
It is believed the scheme would involve those caught with under half an ounce (14 grams) of weed.
The London plans are modelled on similar drug arrest diversion schemes currently in operation around the UK, including in the Thames Valley, West Midlands and Avon and Somerset. The schemes, the first of which started in 2016, have been successful in reducing harm from drugs and unnecessary criminalisation. They were also backed by the government’s new drug strategy published in December.
Megan Jones, director of services at drug charity Cranstoun, which runs the DIVERT drug diversion scheme in the West Midlands, said that of the 1,600 young people who have been offered an alternative to arrest and prosecution in the last two years, 87 percent had engaged with services designed to help them.
“A criminal record from drug possession can be more damaging than the drug itself to future life chances and opportunities,” said Jones, whose scheme provides a mobile app that is installed on police officers’ phones enabling them to make referrals on the side of the road, reducing demand on police time. “Diversion is about harm reduction, education and preventing future offending – it will save the cost to the taxpayer.”
While existing schemes offer alternatives to arrest for people caught in possession of any drug – including heroin and crack – according to Khan’s office, the London scheme will only cover the possession of cannabis. However it will not punish people for being caught more than once.
If the scheme – which could be implemented in May, proves a success in south east London, it could be expanded across the capital.
“We know that we’ll never be able to simply arrest our way out of the [drug] problem,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said on Tuesday. “Which is why we continue to work on schemes that provide young people with support and education, rather than simply putting them through the criminal justice system – with the aim of diverting them away from drug use and crime for good.”