John Campbell, chief constable of Thames Valley Police – England’s fifth largest force – said the existence of a ‘lucrative’ illegal cannabis market led to violence
A police chief today called for the decriminalisation of cannabis to free up resources for other police work.
John Campbell, chief constable of Thames Valley Police – England’s fifth largest force – said the existence of a ‘lucrative’ illegal market led to violence and criminality.
He said police forces had spent years cracking down on weed smokers without being able to snuff out the problem.
‘It’s a recurring problem, so you might argue there has to be an alternative consideration of trying something else,’ he told the Home Affairs select committee.
‘But that comes with a great deal of, I guess, risk, or kind of like attached to a whole aspect of public perception, let alone the political aspects of that.’
The panel also heard from senior police officers and other PCCs speaking about drug policy, policing and the law on illegal substances.
Panel members were asked for their opinions on decriminalisation and regulation of some drugs, notably cannabis, after they had taken evidence at previous hearings in favour of the move.
What are the UK’s cannabis laws and what are the risks of using it?
Cannabis is an illegal Class B drug in the UK, meaning possession could result in a five year prison sentence and those who supply the drug face up to 14 years in jail.
However, the drug is widely used for recreational purposes and can make users feel relaxed and happy.
But smoking it can also lead to feelings of panic, anxiety or paranoia.
Scientific studies have shown the drug can alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, but heavy use may worsen depression in the long term by reducing the brain’s ability to let go of bad memories.
It can also contribute to mental health problems among people who already have them, or increase users’ risk of psychosis or schizophrenia, according to research.
Marijuana can be prescribed for medical uses in more than half of US states, where it is used to combat anxiety, aggression and sleeping problems. Researchers are also looking into whether it could help people with autism, eczema or psoriasis.
Cannabis oil containing the psychoactive chemical THC, which is illegal in the UK, is claimed to have cancer-fighting properties, and one 52 year-old woman from Coventry says she recovered from terminal bowel and stomach cancer by taking the drug.
David Thorne, Assistant Chief Constable of South Wales Police, suggested ‘a great deal of caution’ was needed before making any decisions around decriminalisation.
‘Legalised substances such as alcohol and tobacco still do a huge amount of harm and there’s quite a significant black market,’ he told MPs.
‘Having said that there have been some benefits shown from decimalisation of low levels so we can get people into treatment rather than criminalising them.
‘But whatever we do in this space has to be evidence led rather than going on opinion.’
David Sidwick, Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Dorset, said the majority of PCCs are against the idea and it will only create more crime and public health problems.
He said: ‘The last time there was a state-sanctioned drug like this it was called Thalidomide.
‘There’s two issues here – one, would it make life any easier from the point of view of the crime aspect? No. Unequivocally.
‘If you look at places across the world where they’ve done it, like California, the black market there is five times larger than what it was before.
‘So it won’t change a thing, it will just make it worse.’
Mr Sidwick suggested decriminalisation would also have a negative impact on public health.
‘Portugal had a 30-fold increase in its psychosis hospitalisations between 2010 and 2015,’ he said.
‘Scotland itself mentioned a 74% increase in the same thing – it was reported in the papers in January.
‘Professors of psychiatry are calling for cannabis to be a class A drug again.
‘The US… we know that every four minutes somebody is hospitalised for psychosis from cannabis.
‘So, from that perspective, just looking at psychosis, I’d say ‘No.’ But I’ve had to examine this in depth.
‘And you can see the same thing with autism – a 60% uplift in those states. You can see an increase in those states which have legalised, for cancer, for birth defects.’
Mr Campbell said police forces had spent years cracking down on weed smokers without being able to snuff out the problem
Serena Kennedy, Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, told the panel a ‘common thread’ of the Government’s 10-year drug strategy, Harm To Hope, launched last December, is around how drug users are treated and treatment as an alternatives to criminalisation.
She added: ‘And actually we probably see some of our better results in terms of changing behaviours and changing offending moving forward, when we do look at some of the alternatives.
‘But as it stands at the moment we still need that very hard option of the criminal justice system as well.’