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Business & Profession Legislation & policy

The Injustice of the War on Cannabis

The UK doesn’t have a cannabis problem; it has a cannabis prohibition problem. In the UK, cannabis is a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971, and is illegal to possess, supply, or produce. Possession carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine; supply or trafficking offenses carry a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Cannabis prohibition, with its roots based firmly in racism and xenophobia, harms people whether or not they use cannabis. It is a tool for surveillance, a driver of police stop-and-search, and a major cause of racial disparity in our justice system – with Black people (who are no more likely to use illicit drugs) nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people and 12 times more likely to be convicted if found in possession of cannabis. Of all drugs, cannabis brings the most people into contact with the criminal justice system. Its prohibition has created a conveyor belt of young Black men into the system – which many argue to be the true “gateway” to further drug use and future offending – and has obliterated their education, employment, and life opportunities.

The status quo is unacceptable. With over a third of US states legalizing cannabis for recreational use, and with our European neighbors racing to become Europe’s first legal cannabis jurisdiction, the prospect of a legal retail cannabis market in the UK is inching ever closer. With cannabis the most widely used illicit drug in the world, change is both inevitable and long overdue. Politicians who continue to reject this reality, including the UK’s current Prime Minister, will not withstand the growing public support for cannabis regulation and the industry interests already at play.

The question to be carefully considered now is not whether cannabis laws will be reformed in the UK, but how we will ensure that those most vulnerable to the harms of prohibition are protected by changes to policy and prioritized in future legal markets. The lawful renaissance of cannabis is not only a mechanism to prevent the future criminalization of millions, but also a vital opportunity to address the harmthat cannabis prohibition has caused to Black and other ethnic minority communities and to people with lived experience of drug policing.

Social equity models of cannabis reform, which embed social and racial justice in the regulatory framework, are already being developed around the world, with notable examples in New York and Massachusetts. The UK must be prepared to follow in their footsteps and recognize that cannabis reform is not the progression we think it is unless the harms of cannabis prohibition end for all. We have seen, from jurisdictions that have gone before, that when these principles are not front and center, people continue to be punished for cannabis use, the community harms cannabis-focused law enforcement causes are not rectified, and social and racial exclusion continue to prosper.

For example, we know from Canada that when cannabis decriminalization does not accompany legalization and regulation, those who access cannabis for personal use through the unregulated market – often due to reduced availability or higher pricing of regulated retail cannabis – continue to be punished severely. Though all US states with a legal cannabis market have (to date) also decriminalized personal cannabis possession, we see a different, equally concerning trend of racial disparity in the policing of public and underage cannabis use. In some jurisdictions, we see the active exclusion of people with previous drug convictions from the legal cannabis industry – a policy loaded with hypocrisy that locks the victims of cannabis prohibition out of the new market. We see an absence of clear routes into industry for people living in deprivation who depend on the drug trade as their primary source of income. Furthermore, within established legal cannabis markets, racial diversity is lacking, particularly in ownership and executive positions.

These issues, among others, reserve the legal cannabis industry to the White and the wealthy, who have experienced relative impunity throughout prohibition while scores of people from minority ethnic and lower-income communities have been criminalized. We cannot whitewash our historic wrongs.

Release, the independent registered charity and national center of expertise on drugs and drug law in the UK that I work for, is calling for cannabis reform centered on principles of racial and social justice in a new report supported by political groups and other leading charities in the field. In our “Regulating Right, Repairing Wrongs” report, we explore the dangers of treating social and racial justice as an afterthought when building regulatory frameworks. The report sets out 14 social equity principles to ensure a just and fair future UK cannabis market. The full list of principles can be found here, but key principles include:

  • Decriminalization alongside regulation by removing criminal or civil sanctions for use or possession of cannabis, regardless of its origin.
  • Automatic release from prison where the offense is cannabis-related only and the automatic expungement of prior cannabis-related convictions with minimal input from those previously convicted.
  • Tax revenue to be invested in communities that have been over-criminalized and to support harm-reduction interventions and wider drug treatment initiatives.
  • The establishment of social equity programs designed to award a set percentage of licenses to minority groups disproportionately affected by the war on cannabis.
  • Meaningful consultation with people from overpoliced communities and those with lived experience of cannabis policing.
  • Schemes in place to support the integration of people who have been criminalized for cannabis-related activities into the legal industry.
  • Cooperative models (such as social clubs) for the distribution of cannabis to be incorporated into any new regulatory system along with protections for non-commercial domestic cannabis cultivation.

The injustice of our current war on cannabis, and evidence from the Government’s own Home Office that the toughness of drug sanctions has no impact on levels of drug use, should be reason enough to reform UK cannabis law. However, even the staunchest opponent of cannabis reform might be swayed by the £1 billion in tax revenue that legalizing cannabis is predicted to generate annually in the UK. It is our aim that, when the legalization and regulation of cannabis occurs, industry interests are not at the forefront of the approach, but go hand-in-hand with measures to address harms past, present, and future.

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About the Author
Laura Garius

Laura Garius, Policy Lead, Release, UK

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