Although the United Kingdom government remains staunchly opposed to cannabis legalization, an unofficial wave of decriminalization is spreading across the British Isles. A recent investigation by the Daily Mail reports that only 22 percent of all cannabis possession arrests made by UK cops last year resulted in a criminal charge, down from 27 percent in 2017.

In some areas of the country, this number has dropped even lower. In Devon and Cornwall, only 14 percent of those busted for weed possession were charged with a crime. In Leicestershire, only 13 percent were charged, and in Surrey the rate dropped to 12 percent. In many of these cases, possession arrests resulted in fines, “community resolutions” where cops confiscated the contraband weed with only a verbal warning, or half-day education workshops. In other cases, police simply dropped the charges entirely. 

Cops are even chilling out on busting illegal growers. Looking at data from 20 police forces throughout England, the Mail found that only 22 percent of cannabis production arrests in 2018 led to a criminal charge, down from 32 percent in 2017. In Durham, this rate dipped to 11 percent, and West Yorkshire Police reported that only 10 percent of individuals arrested for growing weed were charged.

Anti-drug organizations are calling the decrease in cannabis arrests a “tragedy.” David Green, director of UK-based “think-tank” Civitas, told the Daily Mail that “these figures provide even stronger evidence that the police have unofficially legalised cannabis in many parts of the country. Many police leaders want to legalize cannabis. Some are openly in favour of changing the law, while others turn a blind eye.”

Indeed, despite the scaremongering of prohibition groups, UK police are spearheading this unofficial decriminalization largely on their own. Norman Lamb, health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, told the Mail that an “increasing number of police chiefs recognize that our outdated drug laws do far more harm than good.”

Simon Kempton, spokesperson for the Police Federation, an organization representing UK officers, said that “there has been a shift away from prioritizing people in possession of cannabis in some force areas.” Kempton added that government funding cuts have forced them to “prioritize resources” to focus on crimes that are actually serious in nature.

Under current UK law, anyone busted with weed can be sentenced to five years in prison, given an unlimited fine, or both. Police are allowed to use their discretion with individuals caught possessing less than an ounce of weed, however, and may choose to issue a warning or on-the-spot fine rather than making an arrest.

Even as their vigor for enforcing minor pot possession declines, UK cops seem eager as ever to arrest individuals for possessing non-psychoactive CBD medicines. Last fall, the UK Home Office officially legalized limited use of medical marijuana, a decision precipitated by a wave of public support for an epileptic boy whose CBD medicine was seized by customs police. Yet despite these laws, customs police have continued seizing CBD shipments, confiscating another child’s supply of CBD oil as recently as this April.