A significant drop in the number of offences recorded for the possession of cannabis has led to MPs discussing its “back door decriminalisation”.
More than half of the police forces in the UK recorded 40% fewer cannabis-related crimes in 2018 compared to data from 2008. But rather than celebrate this figure as a potential trend in dropping crime rates, MPs are concerned that this points towards a different issue – the stealth decriminalisation of cannabis in Britain.
The Home Office has recently spoken out about calls to legalise the drug, saying:
“The Government has no plans to decriminalise recreational cannabis.” They then quoted that legalising the substance would “send the wrong message” to the vast majority of the public who don’t take drugs. A spokesperson also pointed out that talk of the decriminalisation or regulation of cannabis would pose a “potential grave risk of increased misuse of drugs,” particularly for young and vulnerable people.
The body responsible for monitoring policework in Britain, the Police and Crime Commissioner (or the PCC) has called for a review on legislation surrounding cannabis, and the way crimes related to the class b drug are treated by police chiefs and the public.
Is cannabis use legal in Great Britain?
The short answer is: no. Cannabis is a class b drug, and being caught in possession of it can see individuals fined or even taken to court. Growing and selling the drug has even more serious penalties, including hefty fines and imprisonment.
Some confusion about the drug’s use in the UK has arisen, however, mainly due to the legalisation and regulation of medical marijuana products throughout the country. These can only be obtained through prescription, and are usually offered to individuals with epilepsy or chronic pain as an alternative treatment. In such cases use is legal, owing to its regulation and acknowledgement of the law.
This confusion continues with the differing ways in which use of the drug is punished throughout the country. Many police forces have met calls for tolerance and compassion regarding prosecution for the offence with varying methods. Dee Collins, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police told The Times:
“We don’t decriminalise it. What we do is deal with the lower level offences such as possession of a very small amount with a street caution or an outcome that doesn’t necessarily involve going through the court process.”
Mike Barton, Chief Constable of Durham Police has openly criticised his senior colleagues for failing to speak out on the issue. He backs a welfare-first approach to drug use within his jurisdiction, which often involves cautioning rather than charging young minor offenders to minimise the damage caused by a criminal record.
Former minister for health and current Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb has been involved in discussions around cannabis’ legal status for many years. He said:
“What we are witnessing is a de facto drift towards decriminalisation but without any debate, without any role of government, without national oversight… You might end up with a criminal record in one part of the country but not in another.”
So, no, cannabis is not legal in the UK, nor is it being legalised for recreational use any time in the near future. However, how offenders are dealt with when caught may vary.
According to the Home Office: “The police have a range of powers at their disposal to deal with drug-related offences in a way that is proportionate to the circumstances of the offender and the public interest.”
“How police choose to pursue investigations is an operational decision for chief constables but we are clear that we expect them to enforce the law.”