The impact would be extremely regressive — and he can't even do it
It says nothing good about either Sadiq Khan, his opponents, or indeed London’s devolution that he has felt able to put at the centre of his re-election pitch two policies — rent control and decriminalising cannabis — that are not in his power to bring about.
While rent controls are obviously crazy to anyone who looks into their record (“the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city — except for bombing”, as Assar Lindbeck put it), the latter policy appears superficially sensible.
But far from being a moderate compromise between libertarian legalisation and the pointless waste of the ‘war on drugs’, decriminalisation may actually offer policymakers the worst of all words.
Why? Because it basically legalises demand for a drug whilst leaving supply entirely in criminal hands. The result: rich criminals.
According to last year’s Black Review, the value of the illegal cannabis market in the UK is around £2.4 billion. Now nobody is pretending that weed is difficult to get hold of, at least not in cities and towns, but it is very difficult to see how the visible non-enforcement of criminal penalties is going to do anything other than lift it higher still.
But if it were still illegal to supply it, then legitimate pharmaceutical companies won’t be able to bring products to market and legitimate retailers won’t be able to sell it. That immediately strikes out two potential advantages of legalisation: state oversight of safe products, and tax revenues.
In fact, the overall impact of such a move could be extremely regressive. Cannabis consumers, many comfortably off, would benefit from losing any threat of criminal penalties while low-level dealers and transporters would still face all the dangers associated with the criminal supply chain.
Decriminalisation may in fact be the best of both worlds — for consumers. Experience in Canada suggests that when a government does legalise weed, the result can be an expensive product in an onerously regulated market. Recent proposals for the legal sale of cocaine and ecstasy likewise follow a template of small, expensive doses sold via a state monopoly.
How different it is for the savvy buyer on the criminal market. Dealers offer a broad range of tax-free products for home delivery, and you can shop around between them for who has the best stuff. If none of it is up to scratch, it doesn’t take much study to get onto the dark web and buy direct from peer-reviewed wholesalers on whatever the latest black-market narcotics Amazon is.
Prices are falling, quality is rising, reliability improving. What’s not to like?
Unless you’re the State, collecting no revenue and picking up the direct and indirect costs of drugs to government and society (estimated by Black at £3.8bn and £20bn respectively); or anyone brutalised by the international criminal gangs manufacturing, importing, and distributing them.
Throughout the pandemic, progressives have attacked a system which saw white-collar workers stay safe at home, living lifestyles facilitated by an army of blue-collar delivery workers who had to take their chances. Strange for a Labour mayor, of all people, to suggest applying this logic to cannabis.