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A Social Equity Model for UK Cannabis Law Reform?

It’s not a matter of when cannabis laws will be reformed in the UK – but how. Will our policies support those most egregiously impacted by punitive laws, or just produce more violence?

 

There is much evidence to suggest that the UK is in desperate need of cannabis law reforms. It’s what we want – and it’s what we deserve. 

As a nation, we know that our current policies don’t stop consumption, possession or supply of cannabis, and that vast swathes of the population are needlessly harassed, policed and criminalised by our government, with devastating impacts on our communities.

The question to be carefully considered is not whether cannabis laws will be reformed, but how we will ensure that those most vulnerable to the harms of prohibition are protected by changes to policy, supported by public health services and prioritised in new licit markets. 

How will we ensure that social equity and public health are the primary goals of cannabis law reform in this country?

 

Cannabis is currently a class B, schedule 1 drug in the UK

It is illegal to possess, supply or produce. Possession carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment and a fine, with trafficking offences carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment and a fine.

Drug law enforcement in England and Wales has fallen most heavily on people of colour and those living in deprivation. The use of stop and search to police drugs dominates statistics, with around 60 per cent of all searches in England and Wales carried out for this activity. 1 in 3 of allstop and searches are thought to be for cannabis, with 70 per cent of all drug searches being for possession offences rather than supply offences. It’s worth noting that in the vast majority of cases, people who are being stopped and searched have committed no offence – approximately 70 per cent of searches result in no drugs being found.

Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite being less likely to use controlled substances compared to the white population. When black people arecaught in possession of a controlled substance, they are treated more harshly than white people, less likely to receive out of court disposals (many of which result in no criminal record) and more likely to be arrested. When it comes to cannabis possession, black people are 12 times more likely to be sentenced compared to the white population.

Institutional racism, racial profiling and discrimination are symptomatic of broader attitudes that cannot be alleviated with decriminalisation or legalisation alone.Changes to drug policy are important because such changes have the potential to eradicate the harms produced by the war on drugs and to protect people from the harms of state violence, rather than to compound them.

Despite Priti Patel’s call for a zero tolerance approach to cannabis use in order to scare “criminals” into submission, evidence from the Home Office she is now Secretary of shows that there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use. Ms Patel’s stance is, however, a departure from the current party line, which seems to lean towards legalisation following the appointment of former policy lead at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, Blair Gibbs. 

 

Last month, a group of cross-parliamentary MPs took a trip to Canada to see first-hand how cannabis reform is playing out in the country. 

Cannabis was legalised in Canada in 2018 in a giant, imperfect leap forward for global drug policy. Whilst the intent of the reforms was to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, the government still maintains the illegality of some cannabis use and trade and imposes serious criminal penalties for those operating outside of the legal market. 

Critics have suggested that the $5000 bill to obtain the required cannabis license excludes vendors without access to such funds, effectively criminalising the poorest participants in the industry – those who are also disproportionately impacted by the harms of prohibition. In this context, reforms to cannabis laws have exacerbated harms for some, and generated big profits for those already in positions of social privilege.

In an underwhelming attempt to address social equity issues, the Canadian federal government passed Bill C93, inviting Canadians to apply for no-cost, expedited pardons for simple cannabis possession convictions, the federal justice minister announced last month. 

With regard to racial disparity, Canadian drug policy is fuelled by the societal inequalities that surround it. It was no surprise to some that legalisation would not change racial disparities in cannabis arrests. There are still plenty of laws that can criminalise recreational cannabis users.  

Optimistically – David Lammy thinks the UK could do a better job of reform this side of the pond. On his twitter page, the MP for Tottenham made reference to the rife hypocrisy of de facto decriminalisation for those with privilege and heavy-handed overpolicing of “hundreds of thousands of working class, and black and brown kids” who have been targeted by disproportionate drugs policing, urging government to prioritise the expungement of records for those who have been criminalised under punitive UK drug policies. 

In England and Wales, people are still imprisoned for low-level non-violent cannabis possession offences. In the last 10 years, 3,718 people have been given a custodial sentence – of these 44% (1651) were young people aged 10-24.

Departing from prohibitionist-era cannabis laws, some US states have begun sealing the records of low-level cannabis misdemeanours – though prospective employers could still have access to this information via criminal record disclosure checks, continuing the debilitating effect of criminalisation on such individuals.

Others are in support of full expungement of criminal convictions: in California, state legislators have begun the process of auto-expungement, which would curb potential deterrents associated with filing costs or the need to seek legal counsel, as expungements are carried out on behalf of those with convictions.

If you have a cannabis conviction in Illinois, you and 800,000 others can probably breathe a sigh of relief. The state's new Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which takes effect in 2020, allows people to automatically receive clemency for convictions for up to 30 grams of cannabis. Those convicted with larger amounts can petition a court to have the charge lifted.

“A deeper problem in the Canadian model is that the market is dominated by large corporations,” writes Lammy. “Individuals from communities that have been disproportionately criminalised should be actively recruited to the supply side of any new market in the UK. Old criminal records relating to cannabis offences should be scrapped.”

 

Social equity models for cannabis reform have concentrated on increased participation among minority and historically disadvantaged groups by removing barriers and giving priority access to the legal recreational and medical cannabis markets.

For example, in recognition of the disproportionate application of drug law enforcement and the reality of financial dependency on unregulated markets for those that produce and sell cannabis, the Jamaican government have introduced a pilot project termed the Alternative Development Programme (ADP). 

ADP seeks to ensure the inclusion of indigenous small-scale farmers into the regulated medicinal cannabis market, providing land and removing regulatory hurdles to ensure that traditional farmers can meet licensing standards.

The ADP also permits Rastafarians living in Jamaica, who have long been persecuted for their spiritual and religious use of cannabis, to possess and cultivate greater quantities than the general public as use forms an integral part of their faith. In Jamaica, the Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act 2015 (DDAA) decriminalised the personal possession of two ounces of cannabis – meaning it is no longer an offence for which an adult may be prosecuted, although one may be issued with a fine, "similar to a traffic ticket", of J$500 (~$4 USD). Among its other stipulations, the DDAA authorises a household to "legally grow … five ganja plants", and for the "smoking of ganja … [to] be legally permitted in places that are licensed for medical or therapeutic purposes", reports Talking Drugs

In Sacramento, California, social equity programmes are also extended to immediate family members of those who have been arrested or convicted of a cannabis offence prior to legalisation. As an intergenerational justice initiative this acknowledges the secondary impacts of criminalisation on communities, families and those who were formally prosecuted.  In addition, an intergenerational justice approach also recognises the gendered impact of drug law enforcement, which has incarcerated men in greater numbers and has relied mainly on women to bear the burden of familial responsibilities.

In Massachusetts, an Economic Empowerment programmethat supports Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latino descent with mentorship, employee training and start-up business grants has been adopted, and all licensees are required to submit a diversity plan, as well as a plan to positively impact communities that have been disproportionately harmed by drug prohibition.

 

The war on drugs has been a costly failure.

Despite the countless lives that have been devastated, it is estimated that globally $100 billion are devoted annually to enforcement-led approaches. In levelling the playing field and legalising cannabis, the UK government must not fall into the trap of locking out the very people who were locked up by such punitive policies. Cannabis possession offences remain an entry point into the criminal justice system for many. 

In the face of overwhelming evidence in support for treating drug policy as a public health issue, the war on drugs is still fuelled by a carceral logic: people who use drugs are treated as criminals in need of punishment. The term criminal is used less as a descriptor of activity, and more of an identity label, inasmuch as criminals are deemed undeserving of care, morally corrupt and generally bad people with nothing to contribute to society. This stigma is held up by the criminal justice system, which emphasises “crimes” instead of harms, and meets those crimes with punishment instead of support. 

The problem with carceral logics is that they do not address the root causes of harm, such as social inequity, punitive policies, and limited access to health and wellbeing services. Instead, the carceral state doubles down on those who are most vulnerable in our societies (turning a blind eye to those whose privilege is “proof” of their morality – those who, in effect, enjoy immunity from the violence of policing and criminalisation). 

Essentially, a successful drug policy should focus on reducing harms for all drugs. The UK’s current drug policy conversations must extend beyond cannabis – or risk the continued failure to address UK drug-related deaths, which have reached record levels in recent years, and are mostly opioid-related. A social equity model for cannabis laws would be a very welcomed departure from our government’s longstanding punitive approach – but it is partial at best. 

Besides, though cannabis legalisation may reduce the total number of arrests – it is not a silver bullet for tackling racial inequity. A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that disparities still persisted and despite reform, cannabis arrests remained disproportionate for Black and Latino people. A social equity model for cannabis reform must prioritise decriminalisation, whether or not legal regulation is established; the antidote to a carceral logic is to extend the logic of harm reduction to include all people who are harmed by the war on drugs. What we definitely do not want, is mimicry of Canada’s swathe of new cannabis-related criminal laws, that will inevitably target those who are already being targeted by prohibition.

Without a social equity agenda that brings and end to stigma, discrimination and criminalisation of people and communities, drug policy will continue to be used as the main mechanism through which the state asserts its violence. People who consume, supply, cultivate and produce all controlled substances deserve so much better. We all do.

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