Cannabis is a Class B drug in the UK. The penalties for possession of cannabis in the UK are officially 5 years in prison and a fine and 14 years and a fine for supply. That is very seldomly actually the case for people caught with cannabis. Often the police will offer a caution, or courts will offer suspended sentences and fines for all but the most serious of crimes and reoffenders. When you get a stark difference between the actual law on the books and the outcome of criminal penalties, you have de facto decriminalisation.
De facto decriminalisation is where cannabis use is rarely given a custodial sentence, even though the laws say otherwise. It’s also not a very good thing. It is of course a good thing that people caught using cannabis aren’t sent to prison immediately, but its not a good thing that these decisions are often left up to police forces or local magistrates to decide upon.
Many police forces in the UK today don’t target personal use of cannabis due to budget constraints. This is great if you live in an area in which the police force doesn’t see targeting cannabis use as a good use of their time or money, but very bad if you happen to live in one of the areas where it is still targeted with the full force of the year. Cannabis use in the UK has become a postcode lottery. A man growing six plants in the Shetland islands was recently sentenced to six months in prison, while the same crime in Bristol results in a fine for the defendant. Of course all cases are different and judges shouldn’t use the sentencing guidelines as an exact science, but these variations are a big problem.
If we are going to stop sending people to prison for cannabis use and supply, then we need to make sure that is what the law says. It stops the police from being accused of not prosecuting crimes according to the law. It means that people can’t be punished harshly because of a magistrate who has particular feelings about cannabis, as has happened in the past.
If we’ve de facto decriminalised, It’s time to de sure decriminalise too.