Arrests for growing cannabis have fallen by more than half since 2012, a VICE investigation can reveal.
Twenty-six of the UK's 43 police forces responded in full to Freedom of Information requests, showing that arrests have plummeted by 57 percent over six years across the vast majority of the UK – from 6,859 in 2012, to 2,949 in 2018 – though the total is likely to be higher. Less than half of these people, who include both medicinal cannabis patients and members of organised crime groups, subsequently faced charges.
There are up to 500,000 cannabis grows in the UK, according to figures from Cannabis Patient Advocacy and Support Services. It's estimated that weed from about a third of those grows – which often contain no more than ten plants – is used solely for medicinal purposes.
Patients who grow their own weed remain subject to police raids, having their medicine confiscated and effectively forcing them to source it through private prescriptions at far greater costs and with greater difficulty, or on the black market.
"Every patient matters, so while it's good news that arrests are down, severely ill people must still live in fear of arrest while coping with chronic and debilitating conditions," says Jonathan Liebling, director of Cannabis Patient Advocacy and Support Services. "The UK has finally recognised the therapeutic potential and some of the benefits of cannabis, so surely it is both wrong and cruel to continue to threaten arrest or prosecution for growing or possessing cannabis, particularly given the time that our existing medical systems will take to address the needs of all patients in the UK who stand to benefit."
More than a million people in the UK regularly use cannabis to relieve symptoms from conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, cancer and arthritis. These self-medicating patients include Michael and Thomas Wilkins, agoraphobic brothers who grew cannabis in their Cardiff home to avoid going outside due to their extreme anxiety disorder.
They were sentenced to a 12-month community order, placed under an electronically-monitored curfew, ordered to pay £300 in court costs between them and forced to undertake a rehabilitation programme, after police discovered their ten-plant grow by chance in November of 2018, Wales Online reported. Their plants and growing equipment were also destroyed, despite the court establishing they were not dealing. Michael's barrister said at the time: "They are an odd couple – they are reclusive in nature and that's what led them to start growing this product rather than going out to engage with the criminal fraternity."
Medicinal cannabis has been legal for almost six months, but the NHS' narrow guidelines to doctors have meant there have been no new prescriptions on the health service, according to campaigners. However, patients can obtain private prescriptions, with a specialist clinic springing up offering a month's supply of cannabis for more than triple the black market price.
Lezley Gibson, who has multiple sclerosis – which causes pain and spasms that she says only cannabis can relieve – told me that police raided her home in Carlisle in January and seized nine plants and three large bars of cannabis-infused chocolate. Her and her husband, Mark, are veteran cannabis campaigners who went to court in 2006 for supplying patients with cannabis chocolate at cost price. They say they no longer provide others with cannabis.
"We live in a society where we lock disabled people up for medicating with a plant," she says, explaining how she was held in a police cell until the early hours of the morning. "They come and take it away from you, it’s just not right. No pharmaceutical medical has been at all useful, steroids just make you fat and hairy. I just want to be able to take the herbal remedies I've been taking for last 30 years."
Following the raid, Lezley was able to obtain a prescription for cannabis flowers from a private consultant. She now pays £690 for 30 grams, about triple the black market price, for a month's supply.
"We're borrowing money and using credit cards to pay for it," Mark Gibson tells me. "It's so crazy, I can't put it into words. It would cost £200 for a month's illegal supply, but now it’s legal it's much more.' The couple are now waiting to find out if they will face charges: "The cops said just wait and see."
Mick Hodgkins, who grew cannabis to use as relief for his intestinal condition, diverticulitis, as well as his wife's sudden mood swings and extreme joint pain, told me he received a visit from the police, who said they had been told cannabis was being grown on his premises in east Sussex in May last year. "I admitted it was, and I was cautioned," he says. "I informed the officers that I had four cannabis plants growing in my loft, but they were for medicinal purposes and very low in THC and high in CBD."
Mick told the police that both he and his wife can control their respective conditions with cannabis and are subsequently able to avoid using pharmaceutical drugs. "When the officers saw my grow they were satisfied it was personal and not-for-profit, but they still took away all of my equipment and the remainder of the previous grow that we were using as medication," he says.
Mick was un-arrested and eventually only received a police caution, but says he suffered a great amount of stress over fears he could lose his job since, he's required to pass a criminal record bureau check, which can flag up offences as small as cannabis cautions. He and his wife now source cannabis oil from other patients, who make it for £30 a bottle.
A number of police forces have effectively declared they are no longer interested in pursuing low-level cannabis users and growers, with the PCCs from Avon and Somerset, Derbyshire, Durham, Gloucestershire, North Wales and the West Midlands saying they do not believe criminalisation is necessary.
However, 16 forces remain actively opposed to decriminalising use and production, according to the BBC, meaning the approach taken by the police differs wildly from area to area. Still, only in Wiltshire did the number arrested rise between 2012 and 2018, from two to four arrests. The most dramatic drop was in Greater Manchester, from 1,353 to 275. The least number of arrests for the production of cannabis, two, were in the City of London
Earlier this month, campaigner and patient Carly Barton, who lives with fibromyalgia, announced she and another 200 people denied treatment on the NHS are going to grow their own medical weed in a campaign of disobedience.
However, it is known criminals – not vigilante patients – who have long dominated the UK’s cannabis market, and there were 742 raids in 2017/18 on their grows. Almost 3,000 plants were unearthed in one recent case, while eastern European and south-east Asian workers are often found in torrid conditions at these sites.
"They came in, took everything, roughly 20 plants, left some paperwork saying how fucked I am, left," says Danny, an English 50-something non-medicinal grower. "But I was never charged. Nobody showed up after they raided."
On the police's approach to enforcing cannabis laws, he says: "I don't think they really care, do they? Police don't seem to have time for cannabis. You can't book everyone," adding: "I'd hurry up [and legalise cannabis] if I were them. Brexit is coming, and cannabis can boost the economy."
Another grower, Kamal, tells me he has been caught on three separate occasions, and was eventually charged for possession with intent to supply, and distribution. "They really didn't like me, but when you get off with a suspended sentence again and again, you almost just laugh it off and get props from the guys," he says. "They take everything and you just need to start again. It happens to everyone."
Another, Franko, a young Albanian man who is in the UK illegally, is not so optimistic about his chances if he's ever caught. "They will still throw the entire book at us," he says, adding that he's never been caught and never can be, as "it's a real game over on this scale". Franko says he has several homes containing grows yielding 80kgs of cannabis every 16 weeks. "Cannabis should be available to all," he proclaims.
A National Police Chiefs' Council spokesman said: "Police are committed to tackling the criminals at the source of cannabis cultivation and the organised crime and violence associated with it.
We will continue to enforce the law in a practical and proportionate way using a wide variety of powers at our disposal to tackle criminal activity involving cannabis."