What does it cost the taxpayer to imprison cannabis offenders?

With speculation of the possible legalisation of cannabis in the UK’s near future, one of the predicted positive outcomes is the fall in taxpayer cost and police resources going into cannabis offences and prison sentences. So let’s look at the costs and effects of cannabis offences and prosecutions on the UK economy at present.

Currently, in the UK cannabis is classified as a Class B drug- or middle-risk substance. Although this is the case, the number of prosecutions when it comes to cannabis is lower than when the drug was considered low-risk and as a Class C drug in 2008. By law, the possession of cannabis can still result in five years in prison, although it is more likely that if a small amount of cannabis is found in your possession, that a warning will be given- often used for first-time offenders. Whereas repeat offenders could face a penalty notice, a caution or prosecution. Supply and production of cannabis can be punished with up to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine or possibly both. A spokesperson for the Home Office when speaking on the enforcement of cannabis laws stated that implementing cannabis laws is, ‘an operational decision for chief constables, but we are clear that we expect them to enforce the law.’

Although it appears the number of prosecutions has fallen since 2008, it has still been found that taxpayers have spent over £2.5 billion when it comes to detaining on average 8,000 people per year for offences centred around cannabis since 2015. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) recently released figures that revealed that in the last five years, over 1 in 100 people in prison in the UK have been convicted of a cannabis offence- with even more being kept in police custody. These MoJ figures included only prisoners where cannabis was the main offence and not a contributing component to another offence. It has been found that an average prisoner costs taxpayers £37,543 a year, which then exposes that the government has spent over £181 million on cannabis prisoners since 2015. Although the Taxpayers’ Alliance recently said that the real cost to the public was approximately around £2.5 billion, once police resources are taken into consideration as well.

Previously, the Liberal Democrats had claimed that a legal market for cannabis would save 1.04 million police hours annually, which they based on MoJ figures on police caseloads for 2015 drug offences. However, the full extent of how much police time would be saved from the legalisation of cannabis is still open to speculation, and the figures that the Liberal Democrats released are estimates and have been up for debate. However, it does seem the cost of both prosecuting cannabis-related crimes and police resources would fall if cannabis was to become legal. Is legal cannabis in the UK, getting slightly nearer?