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Solving Urban Challenges: How Civic Universities Can Help Their Cities

Research on drug policing and decriminalization at London Metropolitan University shows how universities can confront the social and economic challenges of their communities.

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London is a sophisticated global city; the engine of United Kingdom economic growth and a hub of culture and innovation in everything from fashion to financial technology. Host to 90 colleges and universities, London is also a city struggling with longstanding social problems including inequality, a lack of affordable housing, air pollution, and crime.

Universities are, at their best, not cloistered away from their region but closely bound to it. Most obviously, they are employers of today’s local workforce — and educators of the next. But their research can also contribute ideas and solutions to the social, environmental, and economic problems in their midst. London Metropolitan University has deep roots in the U.K. capital, dating back to 1848 when it began as an evening college for young men.

Dr James Morgan is a Course leader for Criminology and Psychology BSc (Hons) at London Metropolitan University. His criminology interests include substance misuse, criminological theory, criminal careers and the relationships between crime and changing technologies.
Dr James Morgan is a Course leader for Criminology and Psychology BSc (Hons) at London Metropolitan University. His criminology interests include substance misuse, criminological theory, criminal careers and the relationships between crime and changing technologies.

Today, it is home to researchers like Dr James Morgan, lecturer and researcher in criminology and psychology, whose work on drug legalisation and decriminalisation is helping generate innovative ideas for more effective policies.

Fresh thinking about the drug trade

Like most major cities, London faces its share of challenges related to the trafficking of illegal drugs, which is linked to wider issues of crime, conflict, and socioeconomic marginalization. Policy makers and police in the city and the country as a whole have often tended to view drugs through a criminal-justice lens, focusing on an array of sanctions, including prison, for those caught dealing and trafficking. But this has not stamped out the issue or addressed its underlying causes. Academic researchers, activists, and some politicians and police are increasingly interested in new approaches. Learning from cities and countries around the world, they are building the evidence base for more nuanced approaches that move beyond sanctions and punishments and toward harm reduction, and new ways to help those caught up in the industry.

Decriminalization is one option. People caught with small amounts of a drug are not given a criminal record or jail sentence, although they may be required to participate in education classes (as in Portugal), or have minor inconveniences levied on them, like confiscation of driver’s licenses (as in Italy). Legalization, which has passed in Uruguay, Canada, and a handful of U.S. states, is a more full-scale reform that legalizes the entire supply chain, thereby decoupling drugs from the gangs and criminal networks that funnel profits into other harmful enterprises, from political corruption to human trafficking.

The U.K. could learn from these experiments. It was once a leader in incorporating external expert opinion and academic insight into drug policy, setting up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 1971. Over time, the views of expert scientists, sociologists, and criminologists have been increasingly marginalized but the problems facing London and the U.K. call for fresh thinking.

James Morgan, lecturer and researchers in criminology and psychology at London Met, believes academic evidence from across the political spectrum should be more actively incorporated to mount a more effective response to drugs in the city. To learn from reforms internationally, Morgan is leading a series of conferences from London and Bristol to Cardiff. “It has been a long time since academic findings have been given primacy in what to do about crime,” he says. “At these events, we want well-researched views on drug use to get an airing so that people in the field can learn about the cutting-edge research out there, providing a space for ideas on drug policy to be discussed.”

Expert speakers include Professor David Nutt, professor in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and former chief drug advisor to the government. Nuno Capaz, vice president for Lisbon’s Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, is another. Portugal has achieved dramatic falls in overdoses, HIV infection, and drug-related crime since decriminalizing drugs in 2001. “They came to a point in their history where people were so concerned about drug use, they were willing to try something else,” says Morgan. A Portuguese-style decriminalization approach could be a solution to the drugs problems in the U.K. and London, Morgan believes.

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Sixty-three percent of Londoners support full legalization of cannabis and only 19 percent are opposed (a higher support rate than the country as a whole — 47 percent of the British public supports legalization). A group of cross-party MPs recently predicted cannabis will be legal within five to 10 years.

Morgan does, however, point out that changes in drug laws might affect underprivileged communities, including those whose livelihoods currently come from selling drugs. The Evening Standard commissioned Morgan along with James Alexander, a senior criminology lecturer at London Met, to elicit views from a selection of dealers. They found nuanced perspectives — and some fears — which could inform the careful design of any future legalization framework. Some dealers supported legalization of weed but were against selectively bred, high-potency strains of cannabis, known as skunk, which they are worried is too strong, says Morgan.

They also expressed economic worries. Dealers’ efforts to enter a legal supply chain could be stymied by a lack of start-up capital, business credentials or experience, or having a criminal record, which could mean richer, more privileged individuals or corporations would take over the trade. “There were concerns among black dealers that if it became legal the trade would be stolen by more privileged individuals with the capital to start their own cannabis cafes, or cigarette corporations,” says Morgan. This is a significant issue, because while cannabis dealing does not make the dealers in the survey rich, it does prevent them from turning to other, more serious crimes to make ends meet.

‘Trickle-up’ solutions

Legalization is a charged social issue, and with U.K. politics in disarray over Brexit, will be unlikely to play a significant role in electoral campaigns any time soon. But for Morgan, this kind of academic research can build momentum from the ground up and ensure that any future policy benefits from the perspectives of all stakeholders.

From heroin-assisted treatment options and the provision of overdose prevention drugs like Naloxone, to on-site facilities at bars, events and festivals, which test the safety of substances for potential users, there are many targeted interventions that could reduce harm even in the absence of huge legislative overhaul; hospital admissions dropped by 95 percent after such on-site drug testing was introduced in a festival in Cambridgeshire, U.K.

Local police can be collaborators in exploring alternative approaches, since they too are often also weary of ineffective current approaches, says Morgan. They also have some operational latitude in the U.K. context. “Academic researchers are finding sympathetically minded police officers who, in their local jurisdictions, can make some of the changes that researchers and activists are suggesting,” says Morgan.

In Bristol, for instance, young drug dealers are now offered driving lessons, career opportunities, and boxing training to help break the recidivist cycle. Commenting on the initiative, detective superintendent Gary Haskins says the police wanted to ‘take a chance’ on the young dealers.

Morgan believes in working with police and understanding their attitudes and perspective. In one interview-based project in 2017, for instance, he and a fellow researcher found considerable support among London police officers for wearing body cameras, which can improve accountability and transparency and defuse confrontational situations. Contrary to commonly-held assumptions about heavy-handed ‘cop culture,’ officers were in fact progressive in their approach to the technology and saw its value, according to the report.

As one of many academic researchers working on social and economic issues at London Metropolitan University, Morgan’s efforts exemplify the civic role that academic institutions can play in helping their communities. While the university has long had a mandate to open up access to higher education for those who might not otherwise have it, its researchers, are now playing a formative role in supporting policy ideas for the city. London Met was among 40 universities to pledge its commitment to the local community as part of the work of the U.K.’s Civic University Commission. By hosting and supporting work by researchers such as Morgan, London Met can help a storied global city tackle the social problems that have long adversely impacted its underprivileged citizens.

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