Cannabis is subjected to condemnation, disapproval, and bad press. Whether this depiction is fair or not is contested; nonetheless, what is certain is that this notion and its criminal enforcement has justified the conviction and incarceration of thousands of individuals who consume and sell cannabis.
My name is Denzel Uba, and I’ll be providing an insight into my cannabis conviction, the use of drugs I witnessed in prison and finally ask: how effective is incarceration for cannabis, really?
Research conducted by Civitas in 2017 showed that those incarcerated for cannabis accounted for 28% of all drug offences in England and Wales, a monumental figure for a plant which is increasingly legalised and accepted across the world. In 2017 I was convicted for supplying cannabis, subsequently being granted the “privilege” of serving custody in Her Majesty’s Prison Woodhill, a category A maximum security prison – lucky me! I was required to serve 10 months in custody, seven of which I spent in HMP Woodhill.
It is often stated that you can find the positive in any situation; it took a while to discover the positive in this situation. However, what I got was an instantaneous snapshot of the world of drugs in Her Majesty’s Prisons, and it was a shocking image.
Drugs circulate within prisons in abundance, which in turn means exposure to all types of drugs is exacerbated in prisons. Heroin, cocaine, cannabis, you name it, and I guarantee I’ve seen it. The most prominent, most utilised drug was Spice, which is a form of synthetic cannabinoid agonist receptors, which possess much stronger vigour than cannabis. A cat-A maximum security prison establishment having such a free circulation of this amount of drugs felt surreal; it made me question the punitive measures placed on me, as well as all the other punitive measures placed on other cannabis-convicted prisoners.
The whole point of a prison sentence is to act as a deterrent for future offending, perhaps as a last resort. However, on the contrary it could be argued that it encourages recidivism by exposing you to crimes and drugs that you may never have been exposed to in society. I was convicted for supplying cannabis, sent to prison just to be around more cannabis and other class A drugs.
Spice, as highlighted earlier, was the most consumed drug due to its abundance and accessibility to prisoners. The smell of spice lingered around the prison and its effects were all too evident: prisoners could not function once intoxicated, and often mumbled words to themselves. People would be violent or straight up just slept all day, making no time for social interactions with other inmates.
My emphasis on this drug is not to demonise the drug or those that use it, despite me not advocating for its use; but rather, I want to accentuate the conditions faced by individuals who found themselves incarcerated for cannabis. If someone goes to prison for a cannabis-related crime and comes out smoking spice or heroin, can this be called rehabilitation? If someone serves a custodial sentence for supplying cannabis, then supplies heroin in prison and is released with the newfound intention to supply heroin in society, can this be called rehabilitation?
Personally, I understand how difficult it is to attain a job once released. I was repeatedly turned down once I disclosed my conviction, decreasing my confidence in my chances, and hindering my progress towards reintegration. Reoffending will often occur because of this feeling of being outcast by society, and can make a freshly released prisoner feel like a life of crime is where they belong.
I believe it’s time to begin to question the effectiveness of the incarceration of individuals for cannabis-related crimes. Incarceration is a punitive measure which aims to remove people who are “deemed” a risk to society and deter them from committing future criminal acts. However, we humans are amazing at adapting and adjusting to any situation. Despite the initial shock of being locked up in prison, eventually you adapt, and that prison becomes your home, often leading to individuals expressing an aura of extreme comfortability in this environment. This explains why almost a quarter of adults and almost a third of juvenile prisoners reoffend in the UK. I have witnessed this recidivism culture first-hand, even bearing witness to fathers and their sons sharing a prison cell together, an all too frequent occurrence in this comfortability culture our criminal justice system breeds.
So how effective is incarceration for cannabis really? I leave you to decide.