Amid liberalised drug reforms across the US, the UK maintains its hardline “war on drugs”, with cannabis categorised as a class b drug. This followed a reclassification from class C in 2009. Despite this, the UK is currently the biggest producer of medical cannabis in the world.
Currently, under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), possession of cannabis can land individuals with an on-the-spot fine of £90. The maximum penalty for possession, shockingly, is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to £2,500.
The cannabis question has been put under the microscope once again, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced that, if re-elected, he would launch a review into cannabis decriminalisation.
Increasingly, there is growing public support for the drug’s decriminalisation and legalisation. Meanwhile, there is also support from across Westminster for cannabis prescription support for medical purposes.
However, while there are many proponents for drug reform, both the Conservative party and Leader of the Labour party, Keir Starmer, have expressed clear opposition – leaving the UK trailing behind with its drug policies.
So, do the UK’s cannabis policies actually work? And, what does the future of prohibition look like?
At the beginning of April, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in his Mayoral manifesto, proposed that if reelected in May, he will launch an independent London drugs commission.
The commission, he says, will be made up of “leading figures from the fields of criminal justice, public health, politics, community relations and academia”. If it goes ahead, its purpose will be to examine the latest evidence on the effectiveness of drug laws, with a particular focus on cannabis.
In his manifesto, Khan noted the “demand for debate” around this issue. This follows a recent poll commissioned by the Evening Standard and Independent think-tank Volteface, which found that 63% of London residents back the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. Only 19% of those polled in the city opposed legalisation. Meanwhile, there is also significant support for reform across the UK, with almost half (47%) backing legalisation.
Despite country-wide support, the proposals from the city mayor have been met coolly from those at No 10. Speaking about the Mayor’s promise of a commission, Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said that there are “no plans to devolve” policy on controlled drugs, stating that it is instead a matter for the UK government. She added that the prime minister has “absolutely no intention of legalising cannabis”.
Although recreational usage of cannabis is illegal, in 2018, medical marijuana was made legal with a prescription. This change followed the high profile cases of two young boys Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, who had been denied access to cannabis oil, despite suffering from rare forms of epilepsy.
After this, legislative changes came in, enabling specialist doctors to prescribe cannabis products for medicinal purposes.
On top of this, according to the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, the UK is now the largest producer of legal cannabis for medical and scientific uses globally. In 2019, it produced around 320 tonnes of legal cannabis. This accounted for 75% of the global total.
However, despite legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes, since 2018, only three prescriptions have been made. Consequently, many families have been forced to seek private treatment, leaving some families with financial burdens of up to £2000 a month.
In a letter to the PM, Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzihe from the All Parliamentary Group on Access to Medical Cannabis Under Prescription called for this financial burden to be relieved. Backed by 100 MPs and peers, she asked for the government to “grant access to some form of compassionate funding until the wider issues can be resolved”.
A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the department was considering what “further action” could be taken.
While there has been cross-party support for broader access to cannabis-based products for medicinal uses, there has been a significant political push back against drug relaxation in the UK.
Over the years, Labour has decried the “war on drugs” while failing to vocalise support for the decriminalisation of cannabis and back progressive drug policies. Even when the decriminalisation question was put to the Labour candidates back in February last year, each candidate managed to escape from giving a clear yes or no answer.
Now, Labour leader Keir Starmer has moved away from inertia and instead voiced his opposition to the relaxation of drug laws. When asked by Sky News whether or not he supported the decriminalisation of cannabis, he responded: “I’ve never subscribed to that view” and suggested that the current drug policies are “roughly right”.
He added: “When I was director of public prosecutions, I prosecuted many, many cases involving drugs and drug gangs and the criminality that sits behind, and it causes huge issues to vulnerable people across the country. I’ve never gone down that route”.
Commenting on Starmer’s response, campaign group CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform said via Twitter: “We expect govt to advocate for the status quo, but when Keir Starmer, with a background in criminal justice, cannot manage a single new idea, it demonstrates a complete absence of leadership”. This is also, of course, a U-turn on previous comments he made that insinuated he would push for reform but not “immediately”.
Time and time again, it’s been found that the UK’s drug laws don’t work. Instead, they serve to criminalise individuals for minor offences while pushing cannabis underground gives more power to gangs, fuelling human trafficking, slave labour and crime.
In the UK, between 2019-20, out of the 175,000 drug crimes recorded in England and Wales, 63% were cannabis possession offences. Additionally, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), in 2019, 682 people were imprisoned in England and Wales for cannabis offences.
Current laws also disproportionately impact black people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Black people are nine times more likely to be targeted for stop and search compared to white people. Moreover, according to research conducted by the Sentencing Council, black and ethnic minority offenders are also much more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences.
Taking a closer look at the statistics from states which have legalised and decriminalised recreational cannabis use shows that it can even cut crime. In 2018, a Reason Foundation report revealed that legalising cannabis in US states significantly reduced offences related to marijuana production, distribution, sale and possession. Legalisation also reduced other crimes, such as property and violent crimes.
Additionally, in terms of harms, Professor David Nutt, former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) (dismissed over drug policy clashes with government officials), says cannabis ranks below alcohol and tobacco. Speaking to the New Statesman, Nutt said: “The drug laws are a mishmash of political expedience and the influence of powerful lobbyists. They don’t serve any purpose in terms of minimising the harms of drugs or reducing the use of drugs – if anything they do the opposite”.
Moreover, the legalisation of cannabis would enable regulation of the market to ensure riskier, more potent strains of the drug, such as ones with higher THC levels, are reduced.
Ultimately, while the cannabis question remains one of law and order rather than public health, and with most politicians so fearful of media backlash, it seems unlikely that decriminalisation and legalisation will be on the way any time soon.