‘Arresting Our Way Out of Drug Problems’: Should We Continue to Criminalise Cannabis?

Weed, draw, bud, wacky baccy, Uncle Bob’s crafty cabbage. Aside from the last one which I clearly just made up, these are all aliases of cannabis, Britain’s most popular illegal drug.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 48% of the British public favour legalising the recreational use of the plant, with just 24% opposed to it outright. Proponents argue that it would enable the government to lift millions of pounds from the pockets of organised crime, free up countless hours of police time and reduce Britain’s already bulging prison population -the largest in Western Europe. Legalisation also has cross-party support in parliament but a series of political obstacles have ensured it remains a fringe issue.

Before you roll your eyes, already writing this off as another twenty something preaching about why we should ‘legalise it maaan’, consider that the police spend around one million hours every year enforcing the ban on the green stuff. We are told constantly by our media and politicians that forces are overstretched, so why do we continue to criminalise cannabis?

‘Pick your poison’ 

Let it be clear, marijuana is certainly not devoid of health risks. It has been consistently linked with increased likelihoods of schizophrenia and psychosis, albeit without categorical proof that it causes such conditions. ‘Heavy use’, itself a contested term, has also been found to affect memory and impact users’ ability to maintain social relationships. Perhaps more worrying still, amongst a generation of people smoking and eating strains of cannabis far stronger than their parents could even imagine, the long-term effects remain unknown.

Yet its impact pales in comparison to that of Britain’s other two poisons of choice: alcohol and the not-so-wacky baccy. Both levy an extraordinary cost, with £6 billion of NHS funding allocated to the two every year. Beyond this, alcohol plays a part in a staggering 44% of violent crimes in England and Wales, even more highly in cases of domestic violence –marijuana intoxication, by contrast, is almost never cited as an aggravating factor. Nevertheless, the latter is a stigmatised ‘drug’ and the former a jovially celebrated part of our national culture.

Now, I am not demanding our Stella cans and Amber Leaf pouches be snatched away –I am not a monster— merely that we understand policy is not dictated by data, as any climate scientist will tell you.

This has been recognised by chief constables throughout the country, many of whom have deprioritised policing minor weed possession offences in favour of tackling more serious crime. As Mike Barton, one of the first police chiefs to adopt this stance, points out: “We simply cannot arrest our way out of drug problems. Many of us in law enforcement have long been calling for a public health approach to drugs”.

Taking the hit

But his words have largely fallen on deaf ears. Around one in every eighty prisoners in English and Welsh prisons is behind bars for a cannabis-related offence. While increasingly less likely to see out full sentences, those locked up for smoking, selling and growing the plant face a severe social cost. Many lose access to their children whilst facing massively diminished job prospects and thus an increased likelihood of re-entering the prison system.

And, as government figures show, this disproportionately affects ethnic minority groups. Despite only making up 5% of the population, 20% of prosecutions for cannabis-related crimes are directed against black people. Many of these have resulted from ‘stop and search’ checks by police, which the smell of cannabis alone provides legal grounds for officers to conduct. Black Britons are nine times more likely to experience such checks than their white counterparts, despite being statistically less likely to be found with marijuana. Obviously the problem runs far deeper than this but marijuana arrests are a clear symptom of institutional racism in the UK.

The criminalisation of cannabis is also costly in an economic sense. Research by the Taxpayers’ Alliance calculates that, taking into account the million hours of police time spent handing out cautions and detaining users, as well as the costs associated with processing them through the courts and prison system, the ban on cannabis costs the public around £200 million each year.

While, evidently, that sum would not be fully recouped through legalisation, the government would stand to make significant financial gain by regulating, and taxing, the weed market (somewhere in the region of £600 million, according to experts).

 So why don’t they? As is almost always the case: politics.

 In fairness to our politicians, in recent years they have simply had bigger fish to fry. British politics has been consumed by the defining issues of the day: Brexit, immigration, the welfare state and lately, Coronavirus, squeezing social issues like this to the margins.

But, regardless, drug policy is also something of a political hot potato for the mainstream parties. Keir Starmer has supported constables’ more relaxed stance on cannabis but is keen to distance himself from the ‘looney leftie’, ‘socialist hippie’ stereotypes associated, rightly or wrongly, with Corbyn-era Labour. Becoming the pro-legalisation, ‘spread the love’ party will clearly not help him achieve this.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are keen to protect their reputation as the ‘defenders of law and order’ which anchors them to their voting base. Relaxing cannabis laws would undermine their ‘tough-on-crime’ image, potentially alienating the party from some of its traditionally-minded supporters. And with stories swirling about the alleged cocaine habits of high profile government ministers, including Boris Johnson himself,  they are predictably determined to keep drug policy off the agenda.

Legalising or decriminalising cannabis will not ‘solve’ institutional racism in policing. But it will eliminate a pretence to conduct searches that we know are biased against minorities, closing down another avenue towards racial profiling which, conscious or unconscious, must be addressed.

It will not immediately become a lucrative industry. But it will free up time and money for an already overstretched police service. And it will not make much of a dent in our enormous prison population. But it will stop penalising thousands of vulnerable people with life-hindering convictions.

At present, defeating the virus is the primary concern, but it is high time we reassessed our criminal justice priorities.

Words by Charlie Avery

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