Keir Starmer on drugs - behind the curve and everybody else

  • Market Insight 12 May 2022 12 May 2022
  • Regulatory & Investigations

Keir Starmer, for a usually cautious politician, has been unusually firm about his recent u-turn on drugs. In contrast to the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, Starmer firmly declared his opposition to drug laws being liberalised or decriminalised leaving him in the same position as Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, namely that “drugs are bad, and a war on them must be waged and won”.

As a former Crown Advocate and prosecutor with the Crown Prosecution Service, an organisation later headed by Keir Starmer for five years, much of my remand list in the magistrates and crown courts consisted of drug cases. Like Keir Starmer, I similarly was similarly dumfounded by how many thousands of drug cases crossed my desk. Even then the futility of prosecuting these cases became clear. Every time I successfully put people in jail, this merely served to vacate a spot in the market which quickly filled up. In both my and Keir Starmer´s time at the CPS, the price of drugs went down massively, and the purity went up. Hardly “mission successful”.

Since our last update to the insurance market in 2019 in relation to cannabis products and investments in the UK not much has happened beyond the FCA clarifying its position on investments into recreational cannabis.

Medical cannabis is further available but only for well-off individuals who can afford a private prescription. Very few NHS prescriptions have been issued. A cannabis trial for therapeutic use has been largely downsized due to fear of being a gateway to support for recreational purposes. Drug cases continue to add to the huge backlog of criminal courts, “which is shrinking at a glacial pace”, and minorities continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

Across the Atlantic the US marches inexorably onwards to complete liberalisation and regulation of the cannabis market despite President Joe Biden´s lack of support for a federal bill. Voter support for liberalisation has reached giddy heights of 92%. Seven out of 10 are in favour of decriminalising simple possession of any illicit substance.

Most US states now allow for medical cannabis, and many are moving towards regulating the recreational market. The current projected state revenue for legal cannabis sales in 2027 is estimated to be USD 54 billion, still however a fraction of the illegal cannabis market. Banking red tape continues to hamper legitimate state operations and corporate growth.

Washington state has decriminalised possession of hard drugs, and attitudes to psylocibin, ketamine and LSD are softening due to their therapeutic uses in many trials on both sides of the Atlantic. In Canada, where recreational cannabis is legal across the country, the cannabis industry is in a consolidation phase with fierce competition for market share and prices plunging.

Uruguay and Mexico have similarly regulated recreational cannabis.

In Europe, Spain, following Portugal, has mainly decriminalised cannabis consumption which now occurs legally through a myriad of private member cannabis clubs, with hundreds of thousands of members. Germany has recently voted to legalise recreational cannabis creating a gold rush to supply a market predicted to be worth billions of euros. A draft bill is expected in autumn 2022.

Since 50% of cannabis is imported into the UK from abroad, UK authorities will continue to rely on the support of foreign law enforcement to prosecute offences, which are being downgraded in those very same countries.

According to concerned observers, Germany could offer a safe haven for drug operations into the UK. As a result of Brexit, German citizens can no longer be extradited and would only face prosecution in Germany by local authorities. The centre of operations for both production into the UK market and money-laundering has been predicted to switch to Germany.

In light of the above, should Keir Starmer remain a leader of the opposition, it will be interesting to see how his position changes or when a wider realisation is reached that, even if you want to wage a war on drugs, that the approach might need to be entirely different. As US cannabis advocates say, it is “not a matter of if, just when”.


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