Unbothered’s High Impact is rewriting the rules of wellness, wealth, and weed with real and dynamic conversations that put Black women at the centre. This series was originally published on Refinery29 US.
"The current cannabis convictions against members of the Black community is horrifically racist and disproportionate," says 32-year-old Natasha* from Birmingham.
Natasha is one of many Black women in the UK who stand in opposition to current cannabis laws. The legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis in the UK have been up for debate for many years. Earlier this month, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he would be launching a review examining the feasibility of decriminalising cannabis as part of a new approach to tackling drug-related crime (and as part of a larger bid to gain support for re-election among London’s younger population).
To understand the implications of this review, it’s important to know the history behind the UK’s dogmatic stance on the issue. Cannabis was made illegal in the United Kingdom on 28th September 1928 as an addition to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. However, doctors were still able to prescribe cannabis for medical use in the UK until 1971 when the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, creating the class A, B and C classification system and making even more drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, controlled substances.
Since then, there have been multiple reviews of the medical benefits of cannabis, leading ministers like Khan to review the legalisation and decriminalisation of the drug. To date, though, there has been little movement towards that goal and many don’t understand why.
Natasha, who smokes cannabis recreationally, says the drug should be legalised. "It's a completely natural substance," she says. "If it's decriminalised, it will be better regulated and it'll be safer marijuana than the drugs bought on the street that is often laced with PCP, and there will be less crime."
The Venn diagram of those who use cannabis recreationally and those who are punished for their cannabis usage paints an even bleaker picture. Suspicion of drug possession is the most common reason given by officers when using controversial stop and search powers, with Black people stopped and searched at nine times the rate of white people. In response to cries of racial discrimination, the Metropolitan Police said earlier this year that it would examine the effectiveness of its pursuit of those suspected of possessing cannabis in tackling violence in London.
"My brother has been stopped and was given a caution when driving to visit me at university," Natasha continues. "He barely had a spliff on him. Black people don't get let off at all."
Fashion stylist Fen*, 30, from London, who smokes cannabis recreationally, says she has lost count of how many times she's seen people being stopped and searched, especially young Black men. "I myself have been stopped a couple of times as I was smoking rolled cigarettes at that time too, I was an easy target," she tells me. "You just have to look at the prison numbers and how many young Black men and women are inside due to drug charges. It's insane."
A quick review of those numbers confirms Fen’s claim. Black and minority ethnic offenders are far more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than other defendants, according to research commissioned by the Sentencing Council. The study found that for possession with intent to supply a class B drug, 37% of white offenders would be expected to receive an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 44% of Black offenders, 46% of Asian offenders and 46% of offenders from other ethnic groups.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice in 2020 found that one in five of those found guilty of cannabis possession in England and Wales in 2019 was Black. Campaigners are demanding reform.
Imani Robinson, communication strategist at Release, an independent charity that campaigns on drugs and drugs law, and editor of TalkingDrugs, tells Refinery29: "The criminalisation of cannabis possession in England and Wales — and the inequitable application of drug law enforcement more broadly — remains a key driver of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, from stop and search right through to prosecution and sentencing.
"The criminalisation of cannabis has not been effective in curbing use, nor does it support those who use the substance to do so as safely as possible. Instead, criminalisation drives people into the criminal justice system and exacerbates the stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs."
Robinson’s observation is supported by the harsh sentences that come with cannabis convictions, which lock offenders into an extended cycle of punishment. If found in possession of class B drugs such as cannabis, offenders are likely to receive up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine or both, while supply and production can see offenders sentenced to up to 14 years in prison and given an unlimited fine or both. Cannabis users do not take these charges lightly but, oftentimes, the benefits that many say they gain from using the drug outweigh the threat of punishment.
Fen started smoking recreationally with friends at parties in 2008 but never thought she'd be an everyday smoker. "What made me smoke on a daily basis is the fact that I got diagnosed with anxiety," she says. "I'm against pills and so the therapist told me to look into CBD instead. I personally enjoy smoking weed a lot as it makes me relax, and it stops me from overthinking too. I enjoy smoking, not just because it's beneficial for my health but for the whole experience that comes with it."
In addition to opening the doors to recreational usage, she adds that the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis would create so many opportunities for young Black men and young Black girls, including jobs, and new income streams for the Black community, as has been seen in the United States. "I'd love to be the first Black woman in the UK that owns a CBD business, I would love this. I would love to see more CBD and cannabis-related businesses grow in the UK as I think it will be very beneficial for a lot of us."
Thirty-year-old Lorraine* from London agrees. She started eating edibles a year ago in the hope of relieving the chronic pain that developed from having severe fibromyalgia. "At first I didn't feel the difference but after trying it again a couple more times, I realised that it numbed the pain in my joints, not to mention how helpful it was for my depressive symptoms."
A Washington State University study from 2018 confirms Lorraine's claims and suggests that inhaling cannabis can significantly reduce short-term levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Meanwhile, a 2019 study found that fibromyalgia patients given a cannabis variety containing 13.4mg THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component of cannabis) and 17.8mg CBD (cannabidiol, which has medical benefits) were more likely to experience a 30% decrease in chronic pain compared to the patients given a placebo.
Imani adds that the benefits of decriminalisation are well-evidenced but England and Wales remain far behind other countries when it comes to drug policy reform. "Reform is coming sooner than you might think but it is the extent to which our cannabis reforms will eradicate the harms of prohibition and alleviate racial disparity that is of most concern."
"While many reforms may be beneficial for some, reforms are unlikely to be beneficial in the long term for Black communities in particular unless they are committed to principles of social equity."
Lorraine agrees and cites racism as a reason why Black people are disproportionately targeted in relation to drug-related crimes and cannabis possession. "Racism is systemic and whether Britain wants to admit that or not, the evidence is there," she says. "The government uses the law to target young Black men. Many other races and cultures smoke weed too, yet there's still a significant amount of Black boys behind bars for carrying the substance."
She continues: "In my area, all I see is white guys smoking weed in public. They aren't even afraid of being caught because they themselves know that they aren't the ones who the police are targeting. The criminalisation of cannabis is just an excuse to throw Black people into prison, and secretly everyone knows it."
*Names have been changed to protect identities