This story is over 5 years old.


How Austerity Could Help the Campaign to Legalize Weed in the UK

As legalization is debated in Westminster today, we spoke to the founder of Transform, a drug policy think tank, about how budget cuts could inspire change far quicker than expected.

Photo by Jake Lewis

Today, UK Parliament members are going to debate legalizing cannabis after a public petition calling for them to do so reached over 200,000 signatures. The motion was proposed by Labour MP Paul Flynn, a long-time advocate of drugs reform.

Before you get too excited, remember this is a Westminster Hall debate. Saying "let's debate something in Westminster Hall" is the equivalent of when your parents said "we'll see" and pretended to listen while you explained why you should be allowed to do a semester in Malia at age 14. It's a symbolic gesture and won't change much; for as long as the Tories are in power, bizarrely clinging on to their idea that current drug policy is working just fine, it's unlikely we'll see any kind of meaningful change implemented by the government. At least intentionally.


It's possible that the Tories could unwittingly turn out to be a positive force in the movement to legalize weed in the UK. As Conservative austerity continues to affect the budgets of services across the UK, at least 22,000 police jobs could reportedly be lost, meaning there will be fewer officers on the street to deal with drug arrests. Considering the Durham police force has already admitted it's not going to bother wasting time and resources on scooping up stoners (unless they're smoking in a "blatant" way), there's every chance others dealing with massively reduced budgets and staff numbers will follow suit.

To get some insight into the idea, I spoke to Danny Kushlick, founder of Transform, a think tank dedicated to drug policy reform.

VICE: Hi, Danny. Can you tell me why austerity might be a good thing for British weed smokers?
Danny Kushlick: Austerity has squeezed police budgets, so much so that they're seriously looking at where best to place limited resources. We're talking 30 percent cuts across national policing, and even more drastic cuts to the Metropolitan Police. That means there are going to be less coppers out there to deal with criminality. And cannabis prohibition creates an enormous number of criminals.

So because there are fewer police officers, it's less likely they'll waste their time cautioning people for cannabis possession?
It's more to do with how the police allocate resources to particular crimes. Obviously the police have to prioritize certain crimes over others, because they can't do everything. One of the things that the police are looking at very seriously—and now making changes in—is de-prioritizing low-level possession or cultivation of cannabis. In fact, possession or low-level cultivation of cannabis has been de-prioritized by police in some areas of the UK to the extent that it's basically been decriminalized in practice.


Police forces in some areas have made it clear that they are reallocating their resources to focus on more serious crimes. The most famous example of this would be in Durham, where Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg and Chief Constable Mike Barton have said they're reorienting policing efforts away from catching people for low-level possession of weed, because there's no point.

What are the other examples?
Alongside the situation in Durham, we've had police in Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey. They've all said, at the least, that we must review the current situation. They've initiated a public debate that is skewed heavily towards reform and away from prohibition. These aren't neutral events that are being set up; they have been very clearly set up [by them] to pave the way for reforms that lead to decriminalization.

Read on Noisey: An Interview with the Only Person Ever to Nail the 'Smoke Weed Every Day' Line from That Dr. Dre Song

So austerity alone could pave the way for the legalization of weed?
There are other factors apart from austerity at work here. Public opinion has shifted toward supporting legalization of cannabis, or at the very least decriminalization for possession. So we're now at the point where the majority of the public supports those two approaches, which means that police chiefs and crime commissioners know that they're not going to take heat [for not enforcing drugs laws] from the public. There will be a significant group of senior police officers who would rather not be dealing with drugs as a criminal issue at all—they would much rather be dealing with drugs as a health issue.


What would police be focusing their attention on instead?
Well, what the public cares about is violent crime and theft. It's about community safety. Clearly the enforcing of these drugs laws does nothing to increase community safety. So it's not helping the police serve and protect.

What about outside of the police? Is this something that's being seriously considered?
I've had conversations with civil servants in the Ministry of Justice about this, and it's been [talked about while] looking at ways to save money. Among pretty high-level civil servants, a fairly serious discussion is taking place. The Ministry of Justice doesn't want to see these people in the court system, because it's expensive. And [I anticipate] the pressure will start to come from the Home Office itself, because these cuts are not sustainable in terms of maintaining these nonsensical drug laws.

Isn't it weird to think that massive budget cuts could lead to the legalization of weed?
It is odd to think that austerity could lead to greater legalization, but it's not different to how consultants in the NHS deal with which cases they need to prioritize. And the way that the police will do it will be to limit the amount of time that they're spending on non-violent offenders.

What sort of timeframe do you think we're looking at here?
I think we're looking at the end of cannabis prohibition in the next five to ten years.

And how will austerity have impacted upon that timeframe?
I think austerity will probably take five years off—five years off the lifetime of the prohibition of weed.

Let's wait and see. Thanks, Danny.

Follow Sirin Kale on Twitter.