Study reveals challenges of policing cannabis possession

Posted on 23 July 2018

Officers see their own policing of cannabis possession offences as largely ineffective, SPSW research finds.

Practitioners report that cannabis users are presenting to the NHS in increasing numbers.

In recent months, cannabis’s legal status has been the topic of much parliamentary debate. Despite this increasing importance, there is a lack of research conducted on the policing of cannabis possession. 

To address this, researchers from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work - Charlie Lloyd, Geoff Page, Sharon Grace and Miranda Sellers - teamed up with North Yorkshire Police to explore the enforcement of cannabis possessions offences by North Yorkshire Police - a force with the lowest crime rate in England, yet ranked as 14th for drug offences in 2016.

Funded by North Yorkshire Police and the N8 Policing Research Partnership, the study involved a series of interviews with 37 police officers between 2017 and 2018, alongside a detailed analysis of police data on 4,597 anonymised drug possession offences.


The study outlined considerable variation in attitudes and approaches to policing the Class B drug. Those sanctioned for cannabis possession were predominantly male (86%), white (93%), and young, with an average age of nearly 26. One in seven (14%) were minors.

The study also found:

  • Cannabis possession made up nearly three quarters of total drug offences in the force's area
  • Searches often made on the basis of smell
  • Police officers were significantly more likely to target people in more deprived wards and people who came from more deprived wards, even though four-fifths of people were encountered outside their homeward
  • Officers were largely happy with the disposals available to them for dealing with adults, there was widespread frustration with the limited options when dealing with young people

In North Yorkshire, someone first caught in possession of cannabis should be given a cannabis warning; a referral to a drug treatment agency for a second offence; a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) for a third; and a fourth should result in arrest or voluntary attendance at a police station.  Officers have the discretion to skip these steps where they consider the circumstances to warrant an arrest.

The study revealed that the most common disposal was cannabis warnings (47%). PNDs were issued in only 3% of cases, reflecting local difficulties with accessing the relevant forms. There were considerable differences in officers’ understanding and practice of the guidance, and in particular, whether more than one cannabis warning could be issued; with several officers feeling that they should have the flexibility to issue more than one.

Implications for police forces

Lead author, Charlie Lloyd, from the University of York’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said the findings could have implications for police forces across the country. He said:

“The guidance is very complex. Officers are dealing with all sorts of offences on the ground, and it is understandably difficult for them to remember this four-tiered approach for cannabis – and our study suggests that they do not. This study has revealed considerable variation in attitudes and approaches to policing cannabis within North Yorkshire Police, but I suspect that this is a national phenomenon.

“Many officers felt that cannabis use was a serious issue, with some seeing it as a gateway to more dangerous drugs.

“However, there was something of a disconnect between their views of the dangers associated with the drug and what they felt they were able to do about it.“

He added: “Given the considerable variation within this one Force, and increasing experimentation with different approaches to policing cannabis possession around the country, there is clearly merit in further research which attempts to capture variations in cannabis policing around the country.”