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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 21st February 2012

A Retweet by Alex Stevens of a tweet from Russell Newcombe took me to this written answer from 9th February about the number of people ‘proceeded against at magistrates courts for cannabis possession’ in England since 2006.

The numbers show a doubling between 2006 and 2010 from 12,616 to 25,100. And this has been a steady increase as the year on year figures show;

2006 - 12,616
2007 – 14,103
2008 – 17,846
2009 – 21,374
2010 – 25,100

The most recent British Crime Survey of drug use in England and Wales estimated about 1,300,000 people used cannabis in the month before the survey and whilst the proceedings figures are for England only it suggests that less than 2% of regular cannabis users appear in court.

That might lead you to think that it is true that the police don’t target simple possession and that the proceedings numbers are just another example of the confusion that percentages can cause against actual numbers. A 100% increase in the number of cases looks huge but if it means that an extra 12,000 people out of 1.3 million were proceeded against that doesn’t seem so great.

There is a side issue when it comes to statistics. Possession of cannabis is an offence with, officially, a near perfect clear-up rate. That’s because, generally, it only gets recorded as a crime after the arrest. But, since smoking cannabis is a crime and 1.3 million people say they do so, at least, once a month then there must be, as a minimum, over 15 million ‘crimes’ a year of which only 25,000 result in court appearances. Looked at that way, the clear-up rate is tiny.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

But, even though the numbers indicate that the police don’t concentrate on cannabis possession they do, I think, offer some insights into how society works, at present when it comes to the use of Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

There are those who claim that there is no ‘war on drugs’ and they often cite cannabis as an example. The claim is that simple possession is rarely proceeded against and, for the USA in particular, it is said that people in jail for possession of cannabis are almost always there for some other crime as well so it shouldn’t be argued that people are ending up in jail just for possession.

What’s interesting about the parliamentary answer given on 9th February is that the notes under the chart clearly show that the figures refer only to those people for whom possession of cannabis was ‘the principal offence for which they were dealt with’. In other words, these were either matters solely related to possession or where the possession was the most serious matter.

The answer doesn’t say what punishments were imposed so it is not possible, from this data, to say if people are being imprisoned for the ‘principal offence’ of possessing cannabis but they are certainly getting criminal records as a result.

The other interesting thing about these numbers is that, over the same period, the trend has been for cannabis use to decline. So, at a time when fewer people are using cannabis, the police are bringing more of them before magistrates.

The increase in proceedings has followed an almost perfect straight line since 2007 so the changes in status for cannabis, from Class 'C' to Class 'B', don't seem to have changed the trend. It also seems that the pressure on spending, after the middle of 2010, have not affected these figures. It will be interesting to see if 2011, when police spending came under consistent pressure, shows a slowing of the rate of increase if not an absolute decline. Those numbers will not be available until May according to Crispin Blunt, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Ministry of Justice, who answered the question. Let’s hope that Gareth Johnson MP remembers to ask for it then.

But, whatever conclusions you draw from these figures, what is undisputed is that, in the past five years, over 90,000 people have received criminal records that will profoundly affect their lives for nothing more than possession of cannabis.