Cannabis Decriminalisation Is Occurring By Stealth

by Henry Fisher

De Facto decriminalisation of cannabis has gradually been occurring in England and Wales in recent years. This is what can be concluded from figures collected by BBC Breakfast that were reported this morning.

The figures, collected from police forces following a Freedom of Information request, show that since 2010 arrests for cannabis possession have fallen by 46%, the number of cautions issued has fallen by 48%, and the number of people charged has fallen by 33%.

This is despite cannabis usage rates remaining largely consistent over the same period, according to figures from the National Crime Survey.

Even more striking are figures released by the Home Office in response to a recent parliamentary question by Nick Clegg MP regarding the number of arrests made for cannabis cultivation between 2011 and 2014, which reveal an astounding 86% reduction over this period. Clegg’s question, posed on 29th March, requested:

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, how many people have been prosecuted for cultivation of cannabis in each of the last five years for which records are available; in how many of those prosecutions a serious medical condition was cited in mitigation; and what the cost to the public purse was of those prosecutions.

Whilst the response from Mike Penning MP failed to address Clegg’s points regarding mitigation due to medical conditions and the cost to the public purse of these arrests, the reduction in the number of arrests is dramatic:

Clegg PQ question results 29th March 2016

Such profound reduction in arrests indicates that police forces are very much taking matters into their own hands regarding whether to prioritise cases of cannabis possession and cultivation. Whilst the Home Office states that all crimes reported to the police should be taken seriously and investigated, the gradual reduction in reported arrests for cannabis possession and cultivation suggests many forces see these crimes as low priorities.

Year upon year of budget cuts have forced police authorities across the country to focus their limited resources on crimes deemed more important, leaving possession and cultivation of cannabis to go on progressively unhindered. Durham Police Force announced an official policy of no longer actively pursuing people for cannabis possession or small-scale production last July, garnering much media attention, but it is evident from today’s figures that many other police forces have adopted the same policies of de facto decriminalisation with far less fanfare.

Whilst such policies are a welcome progression from previous adherence of the police to criminal prosecution for minor drug offences, it is evident that the current system has created something of a postcode lottery. The likelihood that someone will be targeted for their personal possession or cultivation of cannabis is dependent on the stance of the police force in their area, and also leaves people open to the prejudices of individual police officers.

Speaking to VolteFace, Nick Clegg offered this response to the Government figures:

“We need a new approach to cannabis that ends the illegal black market run by criminal gangs and creates a safer, legal and responsibly regulated one instead. This is what they are doing in Canada and many US states. Regulation means safer products, restrictions on sales to minors, and an end to the pointless criminalisation of millions of otherwise law-abiding people.”

Matters of drug policy should not be left to be decided by the increasingly desperate economic needs of individual police forces. A coherent national drug policy that addresses this postcode lottery and removes the financial incentives for criminal gangs is clearly needed.

Words by Henry Fisher

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