Refusing To Decriminalise Cannabis Aligns Government With Crime Gangs, Argues Advocate
‘Disturbing,’ ‘shocking’ and ‘not fit for purpose.’ This was the verdict of the Dame Carol Black review – a recent government-backed report into the UK government’s drug prevention and treatment policy.
While global momentum seems to be shifting away from a more punitive approach to drug use and towards healthcare based policies, the UK’s stance remains overwhelmingly conservative. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the country’s cannabis laws, with unlicensed possession, supply or production of the drug remaining illegal.
Cautious legalisation of the drug for medicinal purposes in 2018 was heralded by some as the beginning of the end for prohibitive cannabis laws, but progress towards full legalisation appears to have stalled.
‘We’ve actually made an enormous amount of progress in the last 10 years, but it’s all ground to a halt,’ says Pete Reynolds, executive director of CLEAR, the UK’s longest-running and largest cannabis reform group.
Reynolds has been campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis since he was a long-haired teenager in the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, he’s seen the landscape of the debate change dramatically. Recent surveys have shown the UK public is only growing more and more in favour of legalisation, with a recent YouGov poll reporting that 52% of people believe the drug should be legal for recreational – or ‘adult’ – use.
So why don’t the people representing us agree? Despite growing calls for a root and branch reform of UK drug policy, the subject appears to barely be on the government’s radar, with only one major UK political party supporting decriminalisation: the Lib Dems.
‘Public opinion as ever is way ahead of the politicians,’ says Reynolds, pointing out that around 5% of the country – an estimated 3 million people – say that they smoke cannabis at least once a month. ‘So you would think the time is right.’
Given that almost a dozen high-ranking Conservatives have said they’ve previously used cannabis and other illegal drugs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the continued refusal to even consider legalising or at least decriminalising the Class B substance is more than a bit hypocritical.
According to campaigners, it’s also illogical. ‘I think they’re scared of it – they’re petrified by it,’ says Reynolds, adding that he believes politicians are concerned about ‘saving face’ when it comes to reversing their hardline attitudes.
In Reynold’s view, current laws regarding cannabis and wider drug policy effectively put the government on the side of organised crime gangs who make billions from trafficking and selling banned substances on the street.
‘They know the current policy has failed. They know it hasn’t just failed, it makes things worse,’ says Reynolds. ‘Nobody is keener for cannabis to be kept illegal than the gangsters.’
Johnson and other leading Conservatives disagree, holding fast to the view that drug use contributes to a host of ‘social problems’ and should be discouraged. Just last week, the Prime Minister announced a 50-page plan to crack down on drug trafficking in the UK, telling dealers ‘we are coming for you.’
Meanwhile Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response to the first phase of the Dame Carol Black review, which last year accused law enforcement action of having ‘too often exacerbated the problem,’ was to promise to ‘bring the full force of the Government’s response to bear on drugs supply.’
Those opposed to legalisation have pointed to figures emerging out of Canada, where, according to The Times, despite the drug having been legalised in 2018 an estimated two-thirds of cannabis users still get their supplies from illegal dealers.
But drug reform campaigners frequently compare current laws to the prohibition era of the 1920s, when organised crime gangs filled the void left by the banning of legal alcohol, with bloody consequences.
This relationship between restrictive laws and growing space for criminals is echoed by Jason Reed, co-executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK (LEAP UK,) who says organised crime practices like County Lines are ‘a direct consequence of police tactics.’
LEAP UK works on behalf of a network of members of the law enforcement community that campaigns for reform to ‘failing, punitive drug laws.’
According to Reed, there’s growing acceptance within law enforcement that the current approach to drug policy, and the tactics used to enforce the laws, has caused huge damage to the relationship between the police and their local communities.
‘There’s been a sizable shift in attitudes amongst the police in the drastic need for drug policy reforms. Those who are tasked with being on the frontlines can attest to how futile the current laws are.’
Nowhere has the ‘war on drugs’ been more damaging than in BAME communities. Though research has shown time and again that Black Britons are no more likely to consume illegal drugs than white Britons, they are nine times more likely to be targeted by stop and search, with drug possession given as the most common reason. A report issued earlier this year found that ‘no force can satisfactorily explain why’ this is the case, and that police were unable to provide evidence to back up claims that stop and search was an effective tool in preventing drug trafficking.
‘It really does not take much to see just how catastrophic this is for police relationships within BAME communities,’ Reed says. ‘Far from being seen as a layer of protection in society, officers are inherently seen as a layer of persecution due to what our drug laws are doing on the ground.’
It’s easy to focus on the damage done by drugs laws in the United States, in spite of the rolling tide of legalisation there were more arrests for cannabis offenses last year than for all violent crimes put together.
But that doesn’t mean the UK’s own version of the war on drugs hasn’t had its own human impact. 63% of all drug arrests in 2020 were for possession of cannabis, while according to the Ministry of Justice, since 2015 there have been an average of 969 people sat in UK prisons for cannabis offences.
As in the US, Black people have found themselves locked up for cannabis offences at a higher rate too, with the UK Sentencing Council acknowledging earlier this year there were disparities in sentences for drug offences based on ethnicity, as well as gender.
‘People who oppose legalisation say that people who support it do so because they say cannabis is harmless,’ says Reynolds. ‘I don’t think cannabis is harmless. Nobody serious in this business thinks cannabis is harmless, but what we do know is that the present situation causes a great deal of harm.’
Another group harmed by current laws is the disabled community. Prior to the legalisation of regulated medicinal cannabis use, those suffering from chronic conditions interested in the benefits of medicinal cannabis only had the option of obtaining it illegally. That changed in 2018, but as both Reynolds and Reed have pointed out, legal cannabis prescriptions are still not available on the NHS, and with private options unaffordable for many, plenty of disabled people are still reliant on getting their supply from street dealers.
‘We need urgent decriminalisation so that we stop disproportionately criminalising BAME communities and vulnerable groups such as the disabled,’ says Reed. ‘All the while we do nothing and keep cannabis possession and distribution illegal we play directly into the hands of organised crime who are more than happy to take the vast profits from this crop.’
There’s plenty of evidence that could give cover to a government looking to float a more liberal approach. The growing popularity of CBD has helped remove much of the remaining stigma surrounding the drug, while research has also suggested a legal cannabis market could bring in millions in tax revenue for the government.
In recent years, there have also been signs that police attitudes towards cannabis offences may be changing. Earlier this year, Met Commander Jane Connors confirmed that the force ‘fully supports cannabis alone being an insufficient reason for conducting a stop and search,’ while an overall drop in cannabis-related arrests over the past decade have led some to claim that police forces have implemented ‘a de facto drift towards decriminalisation.’
Some politicians are also growing more willing to step off the ledge. ‘10 years ago when I was elected leader of CLEAR there were maybe half a dozen MPs who we could claim as supporters. There are now something like 300,’ says Reynolds.
Legalising cannabis isn’t an immediate catch-all fix. There are still debates around what the best model for legal cannabis regulation and consumption would look like in the UK. But with 14 countries in Europe and 31 US states having already decriminalised adult use to varying extents, there are plenty of real-world examples for the UK to study and learn from.
‘I’ve been saying this for some time but nevertheless I would be shocked if in the next 5 years we don’t have at least decriminalisation,’ says Reynolds, who believes that the likelihood of federal decriminalisation of cannabis in the United States will help grow momentum on this side of the pond.
‘I think it is inevitable, but it’s always been inevitable.’