Police, yet again, are proving more sensible than the government when it comes to the big cannabis question. At a summit in the Welsh national legislature earlier this month, a senior police officer led calls to legalise weed, while a prominent Welsh Assembly backbencher demanded that Westminster give Wales the power to bring the war on cannabis to a "long overdue" end.
At the landmark event in the Senedd on the 10th of January – convened by former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood – experts, politicians, campaigners and police discussed how a regulated recreational cannabis industry in Wales could help grow the economy, improve public health and free up law enforcement resources amid concerns that South Wales Police faces a multi-million pound budget gap this year.
This follows the recent election of the new Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford – Welsh Labour's self-described "21st century socialist" – who has promised to "take a progressive stance on the use of cannabis", saying Wales should "lead the way where clinical evidence is there to support it".
Although it is not currently Welsh Labour policy to legalise recreational cannabis, parts of the nation are increasingly adopting a more progressive approach to the drug. This is in part thanks to Arfon Jones, a North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, who is spearheading a drastic change in how police deal with weed smokers. "We can't regulate cannabis or any other drug in our own right, but we can influence the way we police it," he tells VICE. "What we're doing is effectively de facto decriminalisation. That is within our power and we can do so without changing the law."
North Wales Police are to introduce a diversion scheme in October for those found in possession of small amounts of cannabis. Similar initiatives have been used elsewhere – including Bristol, with plans for the scheme to piloted in Newbury ahead of an expected wider rollout across Thames Valley – which see minor drug possession offenders referred to health and drug education programmes rather than entering the criminal justice system. This may help reduce the incarceration rate in Wales, which is the highest in western Europe.
The move will also save an extraordinary amount of police time, since it takes hours to process possession offences in the traditional way, compared to just 20 minutes under the diversion scheme, with community resolutions logged on an app. If rolled out nationwide, it could save taxpayers across the UK up to £30 million. At the moment, each case associated with cannabis costs approximately £2,256, while police are wasting around 1 million hours overall each year enforcing cannabis prohibition. "We have other far more important things to do than stop people smoking small amounts of drugs, especially cannabis," says Jones.
There are now multiple cannabis social cafes across Wales – as in the rest of the UK – which operate under the radar. Jones has been vocal in his support of these, even calling for more to be opened. "If we did know where they were, we'd be very reluctant to interfere with them unless they were causing trouble or letting children in," he says of the Wales clubs, adding that he visited cannabis social clubs in England (something he was criticised for at the time).
Asked which cannabis cafe model he thinks is most appropriate for Wales, Jones says: "I would look more at the Spanish style-cannabis clubs [where members sell homegrown cannabis to each other] at this moment in time, because the Misuse of Drugs Act applies to all the nations within the UK, so it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to regulate cannabis without the legislation being devolved."
A number of powers across multiple policy areas are devolved to the Welsh government, including – seemingly increasingly – social justice, according to campaigners. The office of the Police and Crime Commissioner controls police budgets, with the PCC-appointed chief constable responsible for operational policing.
Jones is among a number of other PCCs across the UK who publicly and privately support the proliferation of cannabis cafes, and campaigners now say that a regulated recreational cannabis market – advocated for solely by the Liberal Democrats of the Westminster parties – is inevitable.
This could be more than several decades away – however, major investors from the US and Canada, many of whom formerly invested in tobacco, sit poised to lobby governments around the world, including in London, as companies jostle for position in the UK medicinal market.
At the Cardiff summit – not endorsed by any political party and attended by around 40 people – Leanne Wood, who led the Welsh nationalist party into the 2017 general election and has supported legal regulation for at least a decade, told the audience it is "high time we have a sensible debate about drug policy and the potential benefits of a cannabis industry" in Wales.
Criticising the "knee-jerk reactions of reactionary politicians and tabloid editors", she stressed the need to ensure that Wales is well-positioned to "take advantages of the shifting sands upon which draconian drugs policy is based".
"As a country where unemployment is higher than it should be and economic activity is lower than it should be, Wales should be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that a fledgling cannabis industry would provide," she said. "My dealings with Westminster over the past couple of years have only reaffirmed my belief that the criminal justice system has to be devolved to Wales if we are to develop a compassionate and progressive raft of policies that do not criminalise innocent people [who wish to use cannabis]."
Following the event, Wood told VICE: "The current situation – where seriously ill people can be prescribed morphine-based products, but can't access cannabis that they know can help them – is absurd and wrong, so medicinal cannabis is my short term priority.
"Longer term, we would be foolish not to do all we can to be prepared for the changes that are sweeping through so many other countries. We know change is on its way; by planning and preparing for it we can make sure it's the people who see the benefits as opposed to the large corporations and Big Pharma."
A spokesman for Cannabis Industry Wales, a grassroots advocacy group, told VICE: "Wales has a long association with the cannabis plant. Hemp was harvested hundreds of years ago at a place called Cwm Cywarch, Hemp Valley, in Gwynedd.
"Given the devolution of powers on health, education, agriculture, planning and economic development in Wales, all of the ingredients are here to establish an ethical and self-sufficient cannabis industry. With global revenues of $145 billion expected in the next three years, just 2 percent of that would fund half the NHS.
"Wales has always taken a progressive stance on cannabis," he adds. "It was the first home nation to prescribe Sativex for free, the first minister Mark Drakeford is pro-medicinal use, and the Assembly recently voted unanimously to sign a motion asking for more devolved powers in this area."