“The current cannabis convictions against members of the Black community is horrifically racist and disproportionate,” 32-year-old *Natasha from Birmingham tells me.
Natasha is one of many Black women in the UK who stand in opposition to current cannabis laws, as the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis in the UK have been up for debate for many years. Earlier this month, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he would be launching a review examining the feasibility of decriminalizing cannabis as part of a new approach to tackling drug-related crime (and as a part of a larger bid to gain support for re-election amongst London’s younger population).
To understand the implications of this review, it’s important to know the history behind the UK’s dogmatic stance on the issue. Cannabis was made illegal in the United Kingdom on 28th September 1928 as an addition to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. However, doctors were able to prescribe cannabis for medical use in the UK. That was true, until 1971 when the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, creating the Class A, B, and C classification system, making even more drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, controlled substances.
Since then, there have been multiple reviews into the drug’s medical benefits, leading ministers like Khan to review the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis. To date, there has been little movement towards that goal, though many don’t understand why.
Natasha, who smokes cannabis recreationally, says the drug should be legalized. “It’s a completely natural substance,” she says. “If it’s decriminalized, it will be better regulated and it’ll be safer marijuana than the drugs bought on the street that is often laced with PCP, and there will be less crime.”
The Venn diagram between those that use cannabis recreationally and those that are punished for their cannabis usage paints an even bleaker picture. Suspicion of drug possession is the most common reason given by offices when using controversial stop and search powers, with Black people stopped and searched 6.3 times the rate of white people. In response to outcries of racial discrimination, The Metropolitan Police said earlier this year that it would examine how effective its pursuit of those suspected of possessing cannabis is in tackling violence in London.
“My brother has been stopped and was given a caution when driving to visit me at university,” Natasha continues. “He barely had a spliff on him. Black people don’t get let off at all.”
Fashion stylist Fen, 30, from London, who smokes cannabis recreationally, says she has lost count of how many times she’s seen people being stopped and searched, especially young Black men. “I myself have been stopped a couple of times as I was smoking rolled cigarettes at that time too, I was an easy target,” she tells me. “You just have to look at the prison numbers and how many young Black men and women are inside due to drug charges. It’s insane.”
A quick review of those numbers confirms Fen’s claim. Black and minority ethnic offenders are far more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than other defendants, according to research commissioned by the Sentencing Council. The study found that for possession with intent to supply a class B drug, 37% of white offenders would be expected to receive an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 46% Asian, 44% of Black and 45% of Chinese and other ethnicities.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, an independent charity that campaigns on drugs and drugs law, tells Refinery29: “The criminalization of cannabis possession in England and Wales — and the inequitable application of drug law enforcement more broadly — remains a key driver of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, from stop and search right through to prosecution and sentencing.
“The criminalization of cannabis has not been effective in curbing use, nor does it support those who use the substance do so as safely as possible. Instead, criminalization drives people into the criminal justice system and exacerbates the stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs.”
Eastwood’s observation is supported by the harsh sentences that come with cannabis convictions, which lock offenders into an extended cycle of punishment. If found in possession of Class B drugs, such as cannabis, offenders are likely to receive up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both, while supply and production can see offenders locked up to 14 years in prison, and given an unlimited fine, or both. The severity of these potential charges are not considered lightly, but oftentimes, the choice to consume cannabis outweighs this threat.
Fen started smoking recreationally with friends at parties in 2008, but she never thought she’d be an every day smoker today. “What made me smoke on a daily basis is the fact that I got diagnosed with anxiety,” she says. “I’m against pills and so the therapist told me to look into CBD instead. I personally enjoy smoking weed a lot as it makes me relax, it stops me from overthinking too. I enjoy smoking, not just because it’s beneficial for my health, but for the whole experience that comes with it.”
In addition to opening up the doors for recreational usage, she adds that the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis would create so many opportunities for young Black men and young Black girls, including jobs, and new income streams for the Black community as it has been in the United States. “I’d love to be the first Black woman in the UK that owns a CBD business, I would love this. I would love to see more CBD and cannabis-related businesses grow in the UK as I think it will be very beneficial for a lot of us.”
Lorraine, 30, from London, agrees. She first started eating edibles a year ago in hopes of relieving her chronic pain that developed from having severe fibromyalgia. “At first I didn’t feel the difference, but after trying it again a couple more times, I realised that it numbed the pain in my joints, and not to mention how helpful it was for my depressive symptoms.”
A Washington State University study confirmed this, suggested that inhaling cannabis can significantly reduce short-term levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, while a 2019 study found that patients given a cannabis variety containing 13.4mg of THC and 17.8mg CBD were more likely to experience a 30% decrease in chronic pain.
Niamh adds that the benefits of decriminalization are well-evidenced, both for its medicinal benefits and as an economic driver for minority communities, but England and Wales remain far behind when it comes to drug policy reform. “Reform is coming sooner than you might think, but it is the extent to which our cannabis reforms will eradicate the harms of prohibition and alleviate racial disparity that is of most concern.”
“Whilst these reforms may be beneficial for some, reforms are unlikely to be beneficial in the long term for Black communities in particular.”
Lorraine agrees and cites racism as a reason why Black people are disproportionately targeted in relation to drug-related crimes and cannabis possession. “Racism is systemic, and whether Britain wants to admit that or not, the evidence is there,” she says. “The government uses the law to target young Black men. Many other races and cultures smoke weed too, yet there’s still a significant amount of Black boys behind bars for carrying the substance”
She continues: “In my area, all I see is white guys smoking weed in public. They aren’t even afraid of being caught because they themselves know that they aren’t the ones who the police are targeting. The criminalization of cannabis is just an excuse to throw Black people into prison, and secretly everyone knows it.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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