A cannabis card scheme which allows people who use the drug medicinally to avoid arrest is now being used by more than 17,380 people across the UK.
The Cancard, which has been backed by police chiefs, allows patients who are eligible for a medical cannabis prescription to identify themselves to police officers who may otherwise arrest them.
With access to legal medical cannabis still largely unavailable on the NHS – yet accessible through expensive private healthcare providers – people in need of medicinal cannabis who cannot afford prescriptions are buying it illegally.
After the UK legalised potentially life-saving medical cannabis in 2018, resistance from the medical establishment stymied availability through the health service. This left some police officers in the unenviable position of feeling like they may have to punish patients for using unlicensed cannabis without a prescription as they could not easily ascertain whether they were using it for health reasons.
Cancard, founded by medical cannabis campaigner and patient Carly Barton, aimed to help redress this situation. Initial figures from the scheme, launched three months ago, showed that for 94 percent of people stopped with the card, it resulted in no further action or just confiscation of medication. People can only get the card following a medical consultation with a healthcare professional.
“I was approached by an officer who asked me what I was vaping,” said one Cancard user with MS. “I was very anxious but I explained everything and showed him my card. He said he knew about the card but hadn't seen one yet and he liked the style of it. He wished me well and said I shouldn't be so anxious and the police were there to help.”
DCI Jason Kew, Thames Valley police drugs lead, said that both avoiding arresting people for minor drug offences and facilitating community resolutions were a key components in turning previously incriminating encounters with officers into positive health outcomes.
“Policing sometimes finds itself having to innovate, such as in this case when faced with a social inequality,” he told VICE World News.
“The fact that so many of these stops have been positively resolved – and that the patients have had their faith in policing reinforced – demonstrates how important it is to give police officers all the information they need on the street to do their job fairly and effectively, something Cancard helps to do.”
Barton, who uses cannabis to manage fibromyalgia, a long term condition that causes pain all over the body, said extremely vulnerable people had been “living in fear of the very people employed to protect them” for years, but suggested that their terror at seeing officers was beginning to erode.
“I want to praise the police for the work they have done in helping to relieve some of the stress that these patients go through in taking a medicine that keeps them well,” she said. “This is true community policing and the team at Cancard hopes that we can continue to provide a safe space for patients until more fair access is established in the UK.”
The National Police Chiefs Council drugs lead Jason Harwin, deputy chief constable of Lincolnshire force, sent out a bulletin providing training for the scheme, which is also supported by the Police Federation.
Cancard said it has been contacted by over 20 forces who requested further support with their training packages to provide more detailed briefings to their officers.
“Whilst it doesn’t give the individual a lawful right to possess illegal cannabis it does help officers understand better the individuals circumstances and then make a proportionate and informed decision regarding the police response,” said Harwin.
Crossbench peer Baroness Molly Meacher said: “The regulations need reform to enable patients to access cannabis on the NHS. Meanwhile, the police are doing a wonderful job in not arresting sick people who are self medicating and saving the NHS money.”
In 2019, a major survey suggested that almost three percent of the adult population, 1.4 million people, were using cannabis for a medical condition.