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Could Cannabis Be Decriminalized in the UK?

A UK petition demanding the legalization of cannabis recently gained more than 200,000 signatures, meaning the proposal will be debated in the British parliament.

by Philippa Stewart
Sep 10 2015, 2:20pm

Photo by Peter Dasilva/EPA

"We don't want people to feel oppressed and like they're hiding anymore. Prohibition is making people feel isolated in their own homes." 

Max, the founder of one of more than 60 cannabis social clubs in the UK, is clear in his position: cannabis decriminalization is long overdue in the UK. "It's the feeling of being oppressed that does the damage," he told VICE News.

Clubs like Max's bring users together to grow, sell and buy their own cannabis on a non-profit basis, offering members the chance to bypass unscrupulous dealers and know exactly what they're getting, as well as places to come together and smoke.

Their existence is illustrative of a growing acceptance of cannabis use in the UK, not just among the general public but even among certain sections of law enforcement — a shift which this week has seen a serious boost.

petition on the UK government's website calling for cannabis legalization reached more than 200,000 signatures, meaning the proposal will be debated by the British parliament.

Cannabis users and growers have met the news with celebration, but even before the October 12 debate takes place, the government has insisted it will not be legalizing the drug.

"Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health," said a government statement responding to the petition.

"There are no plans to legalize cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities."

Related: Legal Pot in the US Is Crippling Mexican Cartels

Despite the apparent stonewalling from the government, experts in cannabis use see the reigniting of the cannabis debate in the UK as a step towards potential decriminalization.

Steve Rolles, senior analyst at Transform, a think tank that analyses the successes and failings of drug policies, told VICE News the conversation surrounding cannabis reform was evolving.

"What we have at the moment is an evolution of the conversation, moving it away from a group of people sharing a spliff talking about how it should be decriminalized to it being discussed on a higher level.

"It is an incremental step forward, and that is how the law is eventually going to evolve, but while the government is being so dogmatic about the evils of drugs we have to focus on other areas."

On top of the sweeping popularity of the online petition to legalize cannabis — it reached 125,000 signatures in just four days when it was launched last August — several high-profile Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have indicated that prosecuting cannabis users or small-scale growers is no longer a priority amid tightening budgets and stretched resources.

Earlier this year, Durham's PCC Ron Hogg said his force would stop going after small-scale growers, and would offer anybody caught in possession the option of attending an offender program rather than being prosecuted.

"By and large we are saying it is not the top of our list to go out and try to pick up people smoking joints on street corners but if it's blatant or we get complaints, officers will act," he told regional newspaper the Northern Echo.

His words led to headlines accusing the constabulary of "going soft'" on drugs, with opinion writers painting pictures of people roaming the streets lighting up spliffs left and right.

Related: Colorado Just Released the First Legal Marijuana Market Study

Hogg, who has long been open about the fact he agrees with decriminalization, later published an open letter clarifying his views. "When resources are tight, it is important to focus on the causes of the greatest harm - like the organized crime gangs that keep drugs on our streets and cause misery to thousands of people," he wrote.

"So when I say I don't want to see small time personal users prosecuted, it's because I don't think it is the best way of using of the scant resources of the police or the courts to tackle the harm caused by drugs.

"We have not "gone soft", but have adopted a sensible approach to break offending cycles and reduce future harm for offenders and potential victims of crime."

Around the same time some forces announced a more lenient approach to personal use, constabularies such as West and South Yorkshire announced massive increases in cannabis seizures and drug driving convictions.

West Yorkshire recently announced a 71 percent increase in the number of cannabis plants it seized last year, during a period in which the country as a whole saw a 10 percent decrease in the number of cannabis plants confiscated by police.

"The force does not turn a blind eye to any transgression of the law, this includes the use of cannabis," Bryan Dent, Force Drugs Coordinator for West Yorkshire Police said in a statement to VICE News.

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Rolles, from Transform, told VICE News this discrepancy in the enforcement of cannabis possession laws was a troubling but inevitable development in the evolution of the UK's drug legislation.

"This isn't a case of the police trying to stick it to the government — these forces are facing up to reality of dwindling resources," he said. "The police have been fairly explicit about the differences between someone growing a couple of plants and someone involved in people trafficking. What's worrying is that in one part of the country you could get a slap on the wrist, while in another you could end up in prison.

Rolles said it was very unlikely someone would be jailed for low-level possession or growing for personal use as amounts were taken into account by the courts. That distinction was not enshrined in law however, leaving it up to the discretion of the police forces and the courts — so imprisonment could still be an option. 

"One obvious thing is if we've got these different approaches to possession we've got a controlled social experiment and will be able to collect evidence that comes out of this and assess the impact of these policies," he said.

"I suspect what we will find is that there will be no difference in levels of use or social growers. The reforming forces know this is the case because they have done it — they have put their resources into cannabis control and they know that it doesn't achieve anything useful."

Rolles' suspicions that policing levels have very little impact on people who are already smoking seemed to be supported by the cannabis users who spoke to VICE News.

"I guess it is unfair that, like people in Durham might not get punished as much as I would," said Joel, a 23-year-old builder from Bradford, one of the areas where police are clamping down on use.

Joel and his flatmates have a few plants in an airing cupboard and only use them for their own consumption, he said. "We got into some trouble when we were younger because we used black market dealers, who aren't nice - this is loads safer for us - we're not going out to dodgy dealers and buying it anymore and that's who the police are looking at.

"You do sometimes hear from people that the police are really hammering down on smokers — like they do a campaign or something — but then you just have to not carry spliffs in certain areas for a few weeks and it all goes back to normal.

"We're not harming anyone so I don't really get why the police care," he added.

Related: Cops Are Still Disproportionately Arresting People of Color for Pot Crimes in Colorado

Despite a bombardment of headlines along the lines of "Cannabis users given the green light" and "Small-scale users to escape prosecution," cannabis campaigners have little hope they will see any real policy change.

"This petition is really positive, it's showing the community is massive in the UK and people support us," said Max, whose club in the northern city of Leeds operates an over-18 policy and has around 50 members. "But while the Conservatives are in power I don't have much hope that it is going to change anything. It's going to get to Parliament and they are just going to say no."

Max said the aim of the clubs was to get rid of the black market run by organized criminals. "It would be amazing if we could create our own self-sustaining economy, creating jobs in a safe way rather than what goes on with the black market," he said.

The club's first social event, a recent picnic in Leeds' Hyde Park, was marked by mounted police showing up and issuing warnings, but no arrests were made, despite the open cannabis use.

"Despite the police presence and the threat of more troops if we didn't behave, there [were] zero arrests and absolutely no trouble at all. When we left, we left the park in the way we found it," the club said on its Facebook page.

Related: Is Britain Set for Its Very Own Cannabis Revolution?

According to Harry Shapiro, a journalist specializing in drug use and addiction, the government's reluctance to follow other countries' decriminalization policies is down to the lack of political gain that would come from it.

"The idea that law reform is coming up the political agenda is wishful thinking on the part of some people," he told VICE News.

"In this country there's no political win for any government, not just this one, to be had from law reform. In countries like Denmark and Switzerland, legislation changes are normally because of community concerns. That's the kind of thing that tips the balance."

But Shapiro said while official policy was unlikely to change, the police would continue to prioritize other, more violent, crimes.

"By and large, policing cannabis possession has never been a very high police priority," he said.

"It's a Great British compromise. The police aren't going to turn around and say 'We will not prosecute people,' but because of this policing discretion, especially in an age of austerity, forces can argue that they have to prioritize the things communities are more concerned about than people with a couple of joints in their pocket."

For Max, the most recent discussion will have a positive affect, even if it does not lead to the legal changes for which his community has long campaigned.

"Honestly what it does is reduce the stigma associated with cannabis use, so when police see debates like this it becomes a less negative thing," he said. "When people are dealing with individual cases there won't be that same stigma."

Follow Flip Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart

Related: Activists Are Planting Weed in Public All Over the UK

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