Campaigners fear drug is being unofficially legalised

Cannabis laws up in smoke: Campaigners fear drug is being unofficially legalised after it emerges up to NINE out of ten people caught in possession are not charged with crime

  • Across England, an average of just 22 per cent of possession offences led to a criminal charge last year – down from 27 per cent in 2017
  • In Cornwall and Devon only 14 per cent of cases of possession led to a charge 
  • Anti-drugs campaigners say figures show drug is being ‘unofficially legalised’ 

Nine in ten cannabis users and growers in some areas of England are being let off without a criminal charge, a Mail investigation reveals.

Despite a string of warnings over the drug’s harmful long-term effects, many are getting away with a simple telling-off.

Figures show the proportion of users who are charged for possession of cannabis has fallen sharply.

Across England, an average of just 22 per cent of possession offences led to a criminal charge last year – down from 27 per cent in 2017.

Figures show the proportion of users who are charged for possession of cannabis has fallen sharply (file image)

But in Devon and Cornwall, only 14 per cent of cases led to a charge, while in Leicestershire it was 13 per cent and in Surrey just 12 per cent.

The remainder either escaped with a caution or a fine, an official ‘warning’ or ‘community resolution’ such as attending an educational workshop, or they had their case dropped altogether. 

Separate figures for cannabis cultivation – a more serious crime than possession – show that some forces are also charging as few as one in ten offenders.

Last night, anti-drug campaigners said the figures showed the drug was being ‘unofficially legalised’ by police chiefs, and branded the approach as an ‘encouragement to break the law’.

The news comes after Northamptonshire Police revealed on Friday that officers had found a cannabis factory in what used to be a Gala Bingo hall that could have produced drugs worth about £2.8 million each year.

Cannabis has been linked to depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis, which causes hallucinations. Many fear it acts as a gateway to harder drugs, too.

Only last month the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, said Britain risked making a ‘big mistake’ by relaxing the laws on cannabis.

Despite the warnings, some police chiefs are actively calling for the drug to be legalised, while others have urged officers to be even more lenient with offenders. Home Office figures on cannabis possession show that in Northamptonshire – where the cannabis factory was discovered – just 18 per cent of offences led to a formal charge in 2018. In North Yorkshire, the rate was just 14 per cent.

Only last month the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, said Britain risked making a ‘big mistake’ by relaxing the laws on cannabis (file image)

In Hampshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire, more than half of possession crimes in 2018 led to a ‘community resolution.’ Usually this involves officers confiscating the substance and giving individuals a telling-off. Avon and Somerset Police have half-day education workshops for first-time offenders.

In March, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, Dave Thompson, revealed how officers were even avoiding issuing ‘warnings’ for cannabis offences, so as not to ‘criminalise’ young people.

Additional data from 20 police forces in England, obtained using Freedom of Information laws, reveal that just 22 per cent of cannabis production crimes in 2018 led to a charge – down from 32 per cent the previous year.

West Yorkshire Police said only 10 per cent of cases led to a charge. In Durham, the rate is 11 per cent.

The dangers of ‘skunk’ 

Cannabis has been linked to depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis, which causes hallucinations and delusional thoughts.

A major Lancet study in March found that use of ‘skunk’ – high-strength cannabis – increased the risk of psychosis by five-fold. Oxford University research the previous month showed that teenagers who smoked the substance were a third more likely to develop depression.

NHS figures obtained by the Mail revealed that nine-year-old children had been treated in hospital for harms caused by cannabis. They were among 3,400 under-19s admitted last year with mental and behavioural disorders directly related to the substance. Cannabis is also believed to be a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine and LSD. 

David Green, director of the think-tank Civitas, said: ‘These figures provide even stronger evidence that the police have unofficially legalised cannabis in many parts of the country. Many police leaders want to legalise cannabis. Some are openly in favour of changing the law, while others turn a blind eye.

‘The tragedy is that they are doing so at a time when doctors are increasingly worried about the impact on the mental health of cannabis users, and especially our young people. Modern forms of cannabis, such as skunk, are at least twice as potent as varieties that were available in the 1970s.’

Mary Brett, of charity Cannabis Skunk Sense, said: ‘There’s a law there and it’s the police’s job to enforce it. It’s counter-productive and kids know they will be let off with a caution or a warning.’

David Raynes, of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, added: ‘It’s just stupid and irresponsible – an encouragement to break the law.’

But Norman Lamb, health spokesman for the Lib Dems, said it was wrong to give users a criminal conviction, adding that an ‘increasing number of police chiefs recognise that our outdated drug laws do far more harm than good’.

The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said forces were having to ‘prioritise resources’ in the face of government cuts.

Spokesman Simon Kempton said: ‘There has been a shift away from prioritising people in possession of cannabis in some force areas.’

David Raynes, of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, added: ‘It’s just stupid and irresponsible – an encouragement to break the law’ (file image)

Assistant Chief Constable Jason Harwin, the lead for drugs at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: ‘The law provides a range of options for dealing with those found in possession of cannabis that have to be proportionate to the individual circumstances.

‘Charging is one outcome and police officers can use professional judgment to make use of others.’

The Home Office said: ‘Possession of cannabis is a criminal offence and cultivation an even more serious offence. How police choose to pursue investigations is an operational decision for chief constables, but we are clear that we expect them to enforce the law.’  

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