Cannabis Decriminalization Off The Table in Labour Governed Britain

Could we see a left-wing government abandon its liberal principles in favor of conserving the status quo on cannabis legalization in the UK?

Sir Keir Starmer against cannabis
Credit: Getty

Summary:

  • Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the political opposition in Britain, has unequivocally ruled out any plans to relax cannabis laws should he be voted to be the country’s next prime minister.
  • The former barrister turned Labour Party leader cited his experience with prosecuting drug cases as a reason for not supporting cannabis decriminalization.
  • His position sets him apart from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who sponsored a decriminalization bill back in 2000.
  • The news has caused outrage from several drug reform groups, who have criticized Starmer on his lack of leadership and new ideas.
  • It puts a damper on hopes that liberalization could be in the pipeline following the recent listing of a medical cannabis company on the London stock market.
  • The UK’s current voting system has thrown into doubt the existence of an electable prime minister for liberal voters in the UK who support cannabis reform, though campaign groups are pushing for a fairer voting system.

Britain’s political leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has made his position clear on cannabis reform, and it’s not one we wanted to hear — at all.

Former Queen’s Counsel (QC) turned Labour Party leader, who was elected in 2020, told Sky News that, should he be voted in as prime minister in the country’s next general election in 2024, he would not support cannabis decriminalization.

“When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted many, many cases involving drugs and drug gangs and the criminality that sits behind,” he said. “It causes huge issues to vulnerable people across the country. I’ve never gone down that route.”

“I have supported schemes where you’re not arrested for it [cannabis], you’re not prosecuted for it. And I believe in that,” he added.

Reform Groups Respond

CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform was quick to hit back, angrily accusing the Labour leader of lacking direction and leadership.

“We expect govt to advocate for the status quo,” they said in a Tweet. “But when Keir Starmer, with a background in criminal justice, cannot manage a single new idea, it demonstrates a complete absence of leadership.”

Starmer’s view on current drug reform policies, which he believes are “roughly right”, has also attracted criticism from the senior police officer group, Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). 

They are “deeply concerned” about his opinions and have pointed to the UK’s high number of drug-related deaths that, they say, are a direct result of the government’s failed drug policies.

“We currently have the worst number of drug deaths on record,” LEAP told JOE. “We have more people in prison than ever before, and we now have new tactics for organized crime groups such as county lines.”

“Organised crime groups flourish and become ever more violent in the pursuit of dominance to control the market,” they added, stating that “responsible regulation” is the only way of controlling organized drug crime in the country.

Corbyn Consigned to the Past

Starmer’s position has polarized him from his far more liberal (albeit controversial) predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who sponsored a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2000. The bill ultimately failed to pass in Parliament, but Corbyn’s belief that cannabis reform should press ahead never wavered. 

However, Starmer’s unequivocal stance has sent a clear signal to the public that Labour’s short-lived Corbyn era is well and truly over. 

This will certainly come as a serious blow to Labour’s younger voter base (18-29 age group), who overwhelmingly voted for him in the 2019 general election. Additionally, the majority of support for cannabis reform in the UK is rooted in this group, so Labour should probably expect fewer votes from them in response.

Young Britans are in favor of cannabis decriminalization.

However, the question is: how possible is it for voters to inspire meaningful change?

The Barriers Facing Liberal Cannabis Reform Are Huge

Following the London stock exchange’s first medical cannabis listing, there was hope that liberal reform laws for cannabis would follow. 

However, with the Labour leader’s announcement and the Conservative Party unlikely to pass liberalization bills anytime soon, the likelihood for cannabis reform in the UK is uncertain, with a large part of the problem residing in its voting system.

The First Past the Post system currently in place forces people in marginal constituencies to vote tactically to keep their least favorite party out instead of for the candidate they want in. Meanwhile, alternative votes in majority areas barely register on the radar.

It has meant that the Green and Liberal Democrat parties, both of whom support radical cannabis reform, barely get a look in and the result is a two-party system that is allowed to perpetuate in much the same fashion as in the US.

Campaign group, the Electoral Reform Society, was set up specifically to challenge this and have been fighting for Proportional Representation, Single Transferable Vote, and Additional Member System alternatives in response to the two-party problem. They say that reforming the way people can vote will make the process more democratic and allow smaller parties a fair shake.

Reform of this nature could potentially give cannabis the leg-up it clearly needs in British politics, but whether the society will actually manage to achieve this after almost 140 years of campaigning will remain to be seen.