England and Wales may be witnessing the dramatic effects of cannabis decriminalization, with a new study reporting cannabis possession arrests have decreased by 50% over the last five years. From 2010 to 2015, warning citations for cannabis possession arrests fell 48 per cent and the number of people charged for possession fell by 33 per cent.
Data released after a freedom of information request by the BBC shows arrests fell between 2010 and 2015 from 35,367 to 19,115.
Advocates of legalization have seized upon the new data to renew their demands for rational, evidence-based policies as alternatives to criminalizing cannabis consumers.
Despite the fall in arrests and warning citations, however, crime survey data suggests cannabis use remained roughly the same from 2010-15.
The discrepancy has many wondering why arrests are down if cannabis use has remained the same. Police and pro-cannabis campaigners say the data reflect two very different realities.
Police have denied suggestions that the figures showed the force’s enforcement of marijuana laws has softened, and suggested the decrease was more a reflection of staffing cuts and directives to focus on more serious crimes.
Chief Constable Mike Barton told the Huffington Post UK that the figures “are probably a reflection of forces tackling emerging issues such as child sexual exploitation and cybercrime, rather a more liberal approach to law enforcement in general”.
Cannabis campaigners, however, said the figures were further evidence of the failed “war on drugs.” They argue decriminalization is “occurring by stealth.”
One senior policy analyst, Steve Rolles, welcomed the figures saying a drop in arrests is “good news whatever the reason.” He thinks criminalizing thousands of young people is “expensive and completely counterproductive”.
Other campaigners praised the police for shifting their focus from cannabis possession to other crimes.
“This is excellent news as it means that police are concentrating on real crimes that cause harm to people,” said Peter Reynolds, the president of CLEAR, the UK’s largest cannabis policy group.
The drop in arrests is also likely a reflection of the larger global trend toward cannabis decriminalization, medical research, and legalization for medical use. Government at national and regional levels around the world are beginning to develop different approaches and policies to tough criminal enforcement.