Will the UK finally decriminalise cannabis in 2023?

While many countries have decriminalised the recreational use of drugs like cannabis, the UK clings to an outdated position, writes Ian Hamilton

Monday 02 January 2023 12:43 GMT
UK drugs policy is caught in a time warp
UK drugs policy is caught in a time warp (AFP via Getty)

When those responsible for enforcing the law call for change, it must be taken seriously. The National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing have submitted a proposal to decriminalise cannabis and cocaine. These are far from left-leaning liberal organisations, which makes it all the more significant.

However, the current home secretary is known to want to be seen to be tough on crime, and on illegal drug use in particular, so they aren’t exactly pushing on an open door.

The plans they have submitted propose that individuals caught with small amounts of cannabis or cocaine for the first time would be given the option of a drugs educational programme – and would avoid having a criminal record if they successfully completed the course. This policy replicates the well-established speed awareness courses for those caught speeding, who can avoid being given penalty points on their licence if they also complete the course.

In both cases, the incentive of avoiding a more serious punishment is clear. What’s not so obvious is whether there is any change in behaviour as a result of these educational interventions.

We do have abundant evidence of the lasting harm caused by a criminal record for possession of drugs – everything from international travel to employment is adversely affected, and often at an early stage of life, as it is young people who are most likely to use these drugs and get caught. Add to that, of course, the disproportionate number of young Black people who are targeted by schemes such as “stop and search” and who end up with a criminal record.

Recognising the damage this does, Jason Harwin, a police spokesperson, said: “We should not criminalise someone for possession of drugs. It should be diversion to other services to give them a chance to change their behaviours.”

The UK is caught in a time warp in terms of its drugs policy. While many countries have revised their drug laws by decriminalising the recreational use of drugs like cannabis, the UK clings to an outdated position of criminalising use. Many American states have not only decriminalised use of cannabis but have established licensing to supply the drug through commercial outlets. This also means that taxes can be applied to the sale of cannabis.

The UK government has an opportunity to modernise its approach to drugs like cannabis – and at the same time to raise much-needed revenue through taxation. This would make economic sense amid a cost of living crisis and a recession that looks likely to last for years. Anything that could boost tax revenue should be taken seriously in the current climate, even if the moral argument isn’t sufficient.

Unfortunately, all the noise coming from the home secretary and the government indicates a move in the opposite direction. Instead of considering the decriminalisation of cannabis, which they have publicly rejected, they have made clear that they might increase the classification of cannabis from class B to class A, placing cannabis in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine.

Not only does this proposal lack any evidence of effectiveness, but it would make our drug laws look more antiquated than they already are. It would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so serious for those caught, whose life chances could be significantly damaged by this policy. The impact of punishing those caught with small amounts of cannabis far outweighs the damage the drug can do.

The only hope we have is that local police forces will adopt a more liberal approach to policing drug use. Some already have, by deciding not to target low-level recreational use, and the areas concerned haven’t become drug-tourist hotspots or dens of iniquity.

The approach to drug policy should be premised on protecting the population, ensuring the policy doesn’t do more harm than good. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where we are with our current drug laws, which were drafted more than 50 years ago.

Drugs are a contemporary issue, dealt with by archaic legislation which even our police chiefs recognise is detrimental to those they are trying to protect. It’s difficult to imagine a more legitimate and powerful body demanding a change to drug policy than the police.

However, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict that they will be ignored by this home secretary and government.

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