'Why we should legalise cannabis – and spend the tax returns on childhood mental health'

Legalising cannabis for medicinal use is just one policy that any new mayor of London might consider to help tackle inequality, writes one leading educationist

Joe Hallgarten

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With five months to go, all of London’s mayoral candidates are making detail-light noises about making London fairer, more equal, and more socially just. Anyone serious about this will have battles to fight. A fairer London would need to challenge orthodoxies of power, culture and resources. It will probably require a house price correction that might hurt those betting their pension or shorter term income prospects on the opposite continuing to happen. It might challenge the relatively trouble-free route to Russell Group universities that children like my own seem destined to enjoy, whatever school they go to. It would require a new deal with our important, innovative, but often rent-seeking financial services industry.

Our forthcoming Inclusive Growth Commission will build on the successful City Growth Commission to explore some of these issues with the rigour required. In advance of this, here are two flightier ideas, sufficiently half-formed for all the mayoral candidates to play with.

Firstly, lets give the Greater London Authority (GLA) some real levers of power to help narrow attainment gaps in schools and colleges.

The improvement in London’s schools is a globally renowned success story, best told in CfBT Education Trust’s excellent Interesting Cities report. Whilst London does better than anywhere else in the UK in narrowing achievement gaps, those gaps remain stubbornly wide, and continue to widen as children grow older. London’s independent schools retain their hegemony on access to elite university places and graduate positions, and the numbers who are not in education, training or employment remain high, especially in particular ethnic groups. With a national funding formula bound to hurt London’s school budgets, the further education sector facing its own crises, and national attention diverted towards schools in the North and on the coast, recent improvements could prove fragile.

As well as a London-wide approach to skills, the GLA should demand from the Department for Education a London-wide commissioner, genuinely neutral about the relative efficacy of academies versus other kinds of state schools, and focused on improving equity across the city. In addition, the GLA should gain a greater handle on school admissions, possibly with devolved power from the current admissions adjudicator, and smooth paths towards more equitable admissions systems, including favouring local lotteries over selection by catchment area.

Secondly, let’s legalise cannabis for medicinal use, and spend the tax receipts on young people’s mental health services.

I know that this would currently require UK-wide legislation, but perhaps, after more than a decade of growing powers, London could lead the way in a trial that could be rolled out nationally - more than Devo-Max, you could call it Devo King-size. The arguments for legalisation have been made elsewhere, and the policy is proving trouble-free in various US states as well as EU countries such as Portugal. Pledging tax receipts gained for improved funding for young people’s mental health would provide urgently needed additional resources to tackle an issue growing in importance and public concern.

It would also tacitly recognise the link between heavy cannabis use and poor mental health in young people, a problem that legalisation could, unless carefully handled, add to. Funding would be spent on targeted support for the most vulnerable, and more general awareness-raising on the mental health risks of cannabis use.

London’s citizens have the creativity and spirit to turn London into a new global leader in inclusive, sustainable urban prosperity. Do our politicians?

This is an edited version of a longer blog, in which Joe sets out five policies that the GLA might consider

Joe Hallgarten is director of education at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) Action and Research Centre

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Joe Hallgarten

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