British Cannabis Petition Forces MPs to Consider Debating Legalization


A petition calling for the total legalization of cannabis in the UK has been signed by more than 125,000 people in just four days.

The response to an appeal hosted on the government’s official e-petitions website means MPs must now consider debating the issue in parliament. All petitions that reach 100,000 signatures are given such consideration.

The petition’s success comes after a persistent campaign on social media, with activist-linked Twitter accounts around the world calling on UK-resident marijuana smokers to sign up.

The drive comes in the same week that three police commissioners said that, in light of budget constraints, they would not expect their officers to prioritize the pursuit of people growing cannabis plants for personal use.

The petition was posted to the parliament website on Tuesday. By 6.30pm on Saturday it had reached 125,000 signatures, well exceeding the 100,000 needed for the government to consider debating the issue in the Commons.

It calls for parliament to “make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal."

The text describes the drug as “a substance that is safer than alcohol, and has many uses. It is believed to have been used by humans for over 4,000 years, being made illegal in the UK in 1925."

“With Uruguay legalizing, a lot of states in the US legalizing, government cuts, people don’t want to spend the money on policing something they find is harmless,” the 25-year-old said.

“There’s roughly 3 million adult [cannabis] smokers in the UK and I don’t think it’s right for the government to be criminalizing such a large section of society.”

Jason Reed, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Leap) UK, said the petition by Owen, who is not linked to any drug reform activist groups, had come at the right time.

“It’s definitely an issue that people are now taking seriously because before now people saw cannabis reform as something that was for a certain demographic,” he said.

“I think it’s broken into public consciousness. People realize that their loved ones, they are involved in this, so treating people as criminals is quite a barbaric idea now.”

Whether MPs will take heed of the petition is uncertain. It will now be considered by the Commons’ petitions committee, which comprises 11 backbenchers from all parties, who have the power to press for action from government or parliament.

Lady Meacher, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, backed the petition’s aim. 

She said: “If relatively harmless herbal cannabis were regulated and made available in licensed outlets, this would lead to a reduction in the use of dangerous drugs and would create a safer environment for young people.

“Clear labeling would warn against use by those with a mental health family history. And use by children under 18 would be forbidden. The losers would be the drug dealers. 

“A parliamentary debate would enable the facts and sensible options for reform to be considered. The priority must be the safety of children and young people.”

The Conservative government has already set out a hard line position on drugs. One of its first moves after taking office in May was to introduce a bill that would automatically ban any new psychoactive substance not specifically exempted, regardless of any evidence of harm.

The most recent figures from the Crime Survey of England and Wales, published this week, showed the number of people using cannabis had risen to a five-year high. It also showed the number of young adults using cannabis rose past a million for the first time since 2010-11.

While the numbers reporting using cannabis remain well below the levels of the 1990s and 2000s, the cannabis lobby has never been more organized. 

Groups such as Norml (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) UK and the UK Cannabis Social Clubs have sought to replicate the success of cannabis legalization and decriminalization campaigns in the US and elsewhere.

They have had qualified success. On Tuesday, Durham’s elected police and crime commissioner, Ron Hogg, indicated that officers from his force would not seek to prosecute people using cannabis or growing it for their own use.

A longtime proponent of drug decriminalization, Hogg said scarce police resources were better deployed tackling dealers and organized crime. Small-time growers and users would benefit more from treatment to help them live drug-free, he said.

A day later, Hogg’s counterpart in Derbyshire, Alan Charles, made a similar statement to the Guardian. He said the force would always target organized criminals producing large quantities of drugs.

Charles said: “If you are talking about people growing a couple of cannabis plants at home on the window sill, I would not expect Derbyshire police to prioritize that.”

Meanwhile, the Dorset commissioner, Martyn Underhill, who declined to comment on his force’s strategy on cannabis without first consulting its police chief who was on holiday, sent a statement in support of Hogg.

“I really admire the work that Durham PCC Ron Hogg is doing in raising this debate about the decriminalization of cannabis in various forms, such as personal or medicinal use,” the statement said. 

“I am discussing both issues currently with local MPs and Dorset police. It is for this reason that I am holding a drugs conference in January 2016.”

On Friday, Kevin Hurley, Surrey commissioner, was asked on Twitter if enforcing the law against small-scale cannabis growers was a priority for his force. 

He said: “Against terrorism, child abuse, sexual assault, assaults, burglary, heroin trafficking, road deaths, fraud, domestic violence, cuts ... No.”

Steve Rolles, a senior analyst with Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told the Guardian that the statements from commissioners made explicit views that have been long held by some police.

“What’s different now with these guys is that they are speaking out,” he said. “They are making a public platform of views and policing practices that have been around for a long time.”

But it would be a mistake to think that all police share that view, said Rolles. Some still believe that, given enough resources, they can win the drug war. That split was also evident within the internal politics of the Conservative party, he said.

“There does seem to be a split between the more moral authoritarian figures, like Theresa May, and the small-state, freedom-of-the-individual Conservatives,” Rolles said.

“If you look at people like Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron, they are clearly more liberal in regards to the drug laws. But they are beholden to their little-England core voters and the whole Daily Mail agenda.”

The man who started the petition, James Owen, an economics student at Aberystwyth University, told the Guardian he felt people in the UK were ready for cannabis law reform.

According to its accompanying text: “Legalizing cannabis could bring in £900m in taxes every year, save £400m on policing cannabis and create over 10,000 new jobs.”

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