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The future of cannabis reform in the UK looks bleak

Countries around the world are adopting a more progressive stance on weed, but Home Secretary Suella Braverman is now suggesting that the drug should be reclassified as a Class A

As a student Liberal Democrat, Liz Truss once famously plastered a fresher’s fair stall with posters reading, “FREE THE WEED.” Sadly, her commitment to liberating sweet Mary Jane has withered in the intervening years. Suella Braverman, Truss’s pick for Home Secretary, indicated yesterday that she is “receptive” to the idea of making cannabis a Class A drug (it’s currently Class B), which would place it alongside heroin, cocaine and crystal meth. While this is extremely unlikely to happen, it’s a clear and dispiriting indication that Braverman is positioning herself as tough on drugs. 

Braverman’s remarks came after a group of conservative police officers demanded a harsher classification for cannabis, a move which would entail tougher penalties for possession and potential life sentences for anyone caught dealing it. According to a Home Office source, Braverman is “receptive” to this plan, believing that cannabis has not been “policed properly” and “effectively legalised”. 

The idea that cannabis has not been “policed properly” is true, but not for the reasons Braverman is suggesting – the problem is not an abundance of leniency. Britain’s drug laws, as they currently stand, help to facilitate racial injustice on a mass scale: Black and Asian people are much more likely to be convicted for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite lower rates of use, and Black people are significantly more likely to be stopped and searched – a practice for which cannabis possession is a frequent pretext. All of this means we should be sceptical of a group of Tory police officers calling for harsher laws around the drug, something which would inevitably lead to even more discriminatory outcomes. Cannabis laws, then, are more about the drug itself: it’s a clear-cut issue of racial justice.

According to Katya Kowalski, Head of Operations at drug policy think-tank Volteface, it’s “incredibly unlikely” that Braverman will actually go ahead and reclassify cannabis as a Class A drug – in fact, the Home Office have since come out and said that it’s not going to happen. But the tactics and motivations behind the announcement are still worth breaking down. “The Home Secretary coming out strongly against cannabis reform is a means of appeasing the Tory party and social conservatives in this country through tough on drugs' rhetoric,” Kowalski tells Dazed. “It is a clear demonstration of how polarised the UK is on drugs, and an indication that things are unlikely to get better anytime soon."

Attitudes towards Cannabis in the UK are growing more liberal all the time, with over 50 per cent of the population in favour of legalising and regulating the drug – even some Tory MPs have joined in the calls for progressive reform. But despite these changing tides, cannabis remains a contentious and morally charged area of policy. “Statements like [Suella’s] demonstrate the amount of work that still needs to be done to shift this [attitude],” Kowalski says. We shouldn't read too heavily into what this means for going backwards with reform, according to Kowalski, but it does serve as a demonstration of how the government wants to be perceived on the topic – it’s less about a concrete change in policy and more a strategic way of indicating to the press that the Home Office is firmly against reform. 

“President Biden announced the expungement of criminal records for historic cannabis offences, [and] nearly half of US states have legalised the drug... the UK looks archaic in its approach” – Niamh Eastwood

This is frustrating because it’s clear that the government’s current approach to drug policy is not working: despite decades of prohibition, Britain is now recording record levels of drug-related deaths. There is no convincing evidence that criminalising people who use drugs prevents consumption or drug-related harms, nor that criminalising drug production reduces the level of supply. The need to switch to a more harm-reduction-based approach has never been more apparent. And when it comes to cannabis specifically, many countries around the world – including Germany, Uruguay, Canada and 18 states within the US – are switching to a model of legalisation and regulation. 

Unfortunately, it’s clear that nothing like this will happen in the UK as long as Braverman is in charge. “When we think UK drug policy can’t keep going backwards, the new Home Secretary proves us wrong,” says Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, a centre of expertise on drugs laws. “While today the Government has said it has no intention of changing cannabis’s classification, [Braverman’s statement] is indicative of a continued ramping up of the “tough on drugs” rhetoric coming out of the Home Office.”

According to Eastwood, Braverman’s remarks also suggest she will continue with her predecessor’s plan to target recreational drug use, which was outlined in the White Paper published by the Government in July. These plans include mandatory testing of people caught in possession of drugs, removal of their passports and driving licenses, and exclusion from nightclubs, as well as repeated attendance at drug awareness courses.

“Only days ago President Biden announced the expungement of criminal records for historic cannabis offences, as nearly half of US states have legalised the drug,” says Eastwood. ”Given the increased number of countries moving away from criminalising drug possession offences, and the rise in jurisdictions legalising and regulating cannabis, the UK looks archaic in its approach – this is the opposite of the supposed ‘Global Britain’.”