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London Mayor's California visit could lead to decriminalization of cannabis in the UK

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

California was among the first states to decriminalize cannabis. It legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and recreational use has been legal for adults ages 21 years and over for more than five years now, which is why the mayor of London is here in Los Angeles at this moment. He has just announced a commission to study the U.K.'s drug laws, and he wants to learn how California's approach to cannabis might benefit his city.

Mayor Sadiq Khan joins us now. Welcome to California, and welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SADIQ KHAN: Well, it's great to be on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. It's wonderful to be in Los Angeles.

CHANG: Thank you. Well, we are so happy to have you here. Can I just ask you, what has left the biggest impression on you so far from your visit here?

KHAN: Well, what's most incredible is it's the very opposite of illicit and seedy and the regulation. But also, I'm impressed by the honesty and candor of the mayor's office. I had a really good roundtable with Mayor Garcetti's team and the work they're doing there in relation to, you know, managing expectations in relation to, you know, decriminalizing cannabis isn't the panacea because in the U.K., it is against the law to possess, distributed, supply cannabis. And what I'm keen to do is learn from other parts of the world where they've, you know, decriminalized to, you know, see what they're doing that works, that doesn't work and to, you know, have a genuine open mind in this issue.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, what do you hope to take back to London in terms of marijuana policy? Like, is it your hope that fewer arrests for marijuana could mean better outcomes, not only for residents in London but also for your government?

KHAN: The status quo doesn't appear to be working too successfully. So what I've announced is London's first-ever drugs commission. It will be led by a really eminent former Lord Chancellor, Justice Secretary, Queen's Counsel, and he'll be leading a team of experts from academia, from health, from criminal justice, from communities to look at the evidence around the world where they've already decriminalized cannabis. We do have big challenges in relation to criminal gangs, in relation to young people getting involved in cannabis, in relation to the health consequences, in relation to impact on communities. And so, you know, we are keen to see, with a genuine, open mind, what's happening across the globe and look at the evidence.

CHANG: What is the trend currently for arrests for cannabis in London? Is it going up or down?

KHAN: No, they've been going up for some time now. One of the things we have said to our police is the sole reason for stopping somebody, you know, frisking them or arresting them shouldn't be because you can smell cannabis because we are quite keen to avoid young people, particularly Black Londoners, getting sucked into the criminal justice system. Without a doubt, over the last, you know, two decades, you know, possession, arrest, use of cannabis has been going up. What we know, unfortunately, is there are some communities, particularly Black communities in London, who have become criminalized because they are caught, arrested, charged, prosecuted for possession of small amounts of cannabis. And that can lead to all sorts of adverse consequences later on - your abilities to make progression and so - because of a criminal conviction.

CHANG: Yes. We see the same consequences here in the U.S., yes.

KHAN: Yeah. And we also know, rather than having a, you know, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, let's not enforce, let's have an open discussion. Let's try and park our prejudices, whether you're for or whether you're against, and let's look at the evidence.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - as you are exploring this idea of decriminalizing cannabis, your office has insisted that you are not actually able to do that because the power to decriminalize lies within the U.K.'s government. But the Conservative Party is currently in power, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson opposes decriminalizing cannabis. So how much impact do you think your commission could have?

KHAN: You know, I've been mayor now of the great city of London for six years - not just limited what you can do by the powers given to you by parliament. You know, you got to use the bully pulpit of city hall. You've got to understand you've got a huge convening power and try and change the opinions of people if you disagree with them. You know, we've compiled evidence, and we've lobbied the government, albeit a government of a different political party to me. And they've changed their mind on a number of issues.

And so even my own party, by the way, the National Labour Party, doesn't believe in decriminalizing cannabis. And by the way, you know, I've not forming a view either way. I've got an open mind.

CHANG: You know, our London correspondent, Frank Langfitt, he noted to us that the smell of cannabis is not exactly rare on the streets in London anyway. So is the drug already de facto decriminalized there to some extent?

KHAN: Look - the reality is, you know, people already use cannabis in large quantities. Many, many communities use cannabis. Some communities have been criminalized - Black communities, minority communities and others on. And so that's why we've got to have this honest conversation.

One thing that frustrates me is our national politicians having their head in the sand and pretending this isn't really happening. And the experience of your, you know, London correspondent, Frank, is spot on. And that's the lived reality and experience of Londoners. And by the way, Londoners are in favor of decriminalizing cannabis. But what I want to do is have a cool, calm, sober look into this issue before the commission makes a recommendation.

CHANG: London Mayor Sadiq Khan, thank you very much for joining us today, and have a beautiful visit here.

KHAN: Great. Stay safe. Nice talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jason Fuller
Patrick Jarenwattananon