Cannabis and the Police in England

According to statistics recently obtained by the BBC, cannabis arrests in England & Wales have decreased by 46% since 2010. Cautions fell by 48%, and the number of people charged fell by 33%, according to data from police forces released under the Freedom of Information Act.

It has been argued by many that this is an example of decriminalisation occurring by stealth. The argument goes that the lack of arrests (which are not backed up by a subsequent decrease in consumption) are evidence that police forces have quietly given up on fighting the war on weed. They’ve finally got sick and tired of wasting their already-stretched resources on non-violent drug offenders, and rightly so.

But if this is the case, it would appear that Devon & Cornwall Police haven’t got the memo. The North Devon Journal report that just last week, a 24 year old male from Barnstaple, in North Devon, was dragged before the magistrates and charged with possession of just £36 worth of cannabis.

Police had been searching his home after arresting him for a separate matter (it is unknown what this was) and found during their search two ‘clear plastic wraps’ of dried bud, which the defendant maintained was for personal use. He used the drug, he said, because he doesn’t drink alcohol.

Most ordinary people – and most police forces, judging by the aforementioned statistics – would have thought that the sensible thing to do in this situation would be, at worst, to confiscate the offending item and allow everyone to move on with their lives. But not in Barnstaple. The ‘criminal’ in this case was fined £80 and ordered to pay £30 costs, plus a £20 victim surcharge. Bringing the total amount paid for, presumably, about 3.5g of cannabis, to £166.

A hefty sum to pay for the individual, but one that no doubt pales into insignificance compared to how much the whole process would have cost the police and courts.

North Devon does have form in this area. Just 18 months ago, in a case that makes this one look positively sane, South Molton man Christopher Saunders was arrested and charged with possession of just 9 pence worth of cannabis. He was ‘only’ given a conditional discharge, but still had to pay a victim surcharge of £15 for his troubles.

What made this case all the more galling was the fact – not reported at the time – that Mr Saunders is a former Pride of Britain winner. A man who had overcome adversity and a heroin addiction to devote his life to helping others in the same situation, was hauled in front of the courts for the ‘crime’ of possessing what his lawyer called “a quantity [of cannabis] that is barely capable of measurement.”

You would think that a police force whose own Police & Crime Commissioner, Tony Hogg, recently informed petrol station owners that officers would not be able to investigate thefts from their pumps due to cutbacks, would be more willing to follow the lead of other forces – most openly in Durham – who have effectively decriminalised cannabis use. But no, apparently in Devon possession of even the most minuscule amount of cannabis is still considered a greater crime – and it’s prosecution a more worthy use of police time and money – than outright theft.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, and his own blog,



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