As changing attitudes toward cannabis continue to trigger debate, and increasingly action, in many countries around the world, there is a real need to discuss how future reforms should be implemented with regard to social justice and equity. In North America, where cannabis reforms have arguably occurred more quickly and more significantly than in any other part of the world, social equity programmes have gained support from politicians, the cannabis industry, and the public alike. But in Europe, where the social impacts of cannabis prohibition – particularly with regards to discrimination – are routinely swept under the rug, such measures are rarely mentioned.
This topic was recently tackled by First Wednesdays, the publishing arm of the Hanway Company, in its latest report, The Social Impact of Cannabis Legalisation. In light of their research, we’re taking a closer look at how the prohibition of cannabis and criminalisation of users continues to disproportionately affect marginalised groups and drive human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK.
Cannabis prohibition and discrimination in the UK
As Hanway’s report highlights, the majority of European countries intentionally do not collect racial or ethnically aggregated data of any kind in relation to the enforcement of cannabis prohibition. In fact, out of the 28 European countries in the OECD, only 10 collect data aggregated by ethnicity, while just 2 (the UK and Ireland) collect data aggregated by race. However, as one of the few European countries that supplements crime statistics with an ethnicity-based analysis of policing and criminal justice interactions, data from the UK reminds us that Europe may not be too far removed from North America when it comes to the disproportionate impact of cannabis prohibition in marginalised communities.
Stop and Search disproportionately impacts people from Black and minority backgrounds
According to data collected in England and Wales in the year ending March 2021, people from a Black or Black British background were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than people from a White ethnic background. Furthermore, people from an Asian or Asian British background, or mixed ethnic background, were approximately two and a half times more likely to be stopped and searched. The most common reason for carrying out a stop and search (making up 61% of all searches in 2022/23) was on suspicion of drug possession. Furthermore, it is suspected that around 1 in 3 stop and searches are for cannabis possession offences.
Perhaps even more concerning is the rate of strip searches involving children on suspicion of drug possession. In the UK, 2,847 children were strip-searched for suspected drug possession between 2018 and mid-2020 – 38% of these children were Black, making Black children up to six times more likely to be strip-searched when compared to national population figures.
Arrests and convictions are higher among people from Black and minority backgrounds
And it’s not just stop-and-search rates that are higher among Black and minority individuals. Analysis from the drug reform group, Release, shows that Black people are also more likely to be arrested following stop and search than their White counterparts. The same is true for most other ethnic minorities, too. In fact, as of 2017, Black and Asian people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 and 2.4 times the rate of White people, respectively – despite having lower rates of self-reported drug use.
The role of cannabis prohibition in human trafficking and modern slavery
Cannabis prohibition doesn’t only contribute to the ongoing discrimination in policing, it is also inextricably linked to human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK. According to the UK’s National Police Chiefs Council, there is an ‘intractable’ link between cannabis farms, run by criminal gangs, and modern slavery, with Vietnamese and Albanian migrants at particular risk of exploitation. Reports show that crops grown using Vietnamese slave labour account for a significant proportion of illicit cannabis in the UK. These operations are run by criminal gangs who routinely traffic minors and vulnerable adults into the country.
Individuals who find themselves in these positions may have entered employment willingly, as cannabis cultivation may offer higher wages than other undocumented jobs, or forcefully under “debt” to their traffickers – often under threatening and violent circumstances. The most devastating part of all this is that many of these victims, when discovered by police, are treated like criminals, adding to the number of ethnic minority individuals being funnelled through the criminal system for cannabis offences.
How do we change this?
The figures highlighted by First Wednesdays’ report speak to the ongoing injustice experienced by Black and minority communities at the hands of cannabis prohibition. There is a clear need for a new, evidence-based approach to cannabis in the UK – an approach that not only decriminalises the use of the drug, but one that also seeks to address and right the injustices of the past. This will require not only the legalisation of cannabis but also the introduction of effective regulations that champion these goals at every step.
As the authors of The Social Impact of Cannabis Legalisation note, the approach to achieving these goals in North America has focused, in part, on the launch of social equity programmes designed to prioritise or remove barriers for the most marginalised groups or people with cannabis-related criminal records in the development of the fledgling legal cannabis industry. However, while initiatives to reform cannabis policy are becoming more commonplace across Europe, these have so far lacked any focus on social equity. Yet, in many cases, the programmes introduced in the USA and Canada can’t simply be imported and applied to the UK.
In their report, First Wednesdays lays out a number of initiatives that would contribute to the development of ethical cannabis industries in the UK and the rest of Europe, from the introduction of both commercial and non-commercial production (such as home grows and cannabis clubs) to the expungement of past cannabis convictions and reinvestment of cannabis taxes into the communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition. Other measures highlighted in the report include ensuring corporate and supply chain accountability, inclusion of non-violent illicit cannabis cultivators and suppliers in the new industry, and importantly, an ongoing collection of data to guide future policies.