The UK has spent more than £2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) since 2015 on keeping up to 8,000 people per year behind bars for cannabis offences.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that more than 1% of Britain’s prison population has been convicted of a cannabis offence over the past five years. The figures obtained by Taxpayers Alliance only include prisoners for whom a cannabis-related offence was their main crime, and not if it was a contributing factor for another offence.

“Leaving the moral arguments aside, it is clear that the prohibition of cannabis costs taxpayers a fortune every year,” Harry Fone of the Taxpayers Alliance told The Times. “Legalization would release hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on other priorities.”

The consumer group said that the police spend £212 million per year enforcing cannabis laws, the Crown Prosecution Service spends £47 million, £60 million goes towards legal aid for those charged with cannabis offences and the probation service spends £141 million monitoring people with convictions. When you add in the cost of keeping prisoners locked up, it all amounts to more than £2.5 billion since 2015, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Research suggests that around 7,000 people per year spend up to 12 hours in custody for cannabis related offences, and many of them are minor possession charges. However, the number of prisoners serving longer sentences for cannabis offences has dropped to 682 right now, bringing the five-year average down to 969 per year. That suggests police forces are increasingly turning a blind eye to it, referred to as decriminalization by stealth.

However, the figures will increase the pressure on the UK government to follow in Canada’s footsteps by legalizing recreational cannabis use. It legalized medicinal marijuana in October 2018, and the first products – Epidyolex and Sativex, produced by British firm GW Pharma and used to treat epilepsy and Multiple Sclerosis, respectively – will be available on the NHS next month.

Attitudes are softening towards cannabis, but adult-use legalization is some way off. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one of various Conservative MPs that have admitted to using cannabis, so he may be persuaded to change the law.

He won a healthy majority in the general election earlier this month and that gives the Conservatives plenty of scope to successfully introduce new legislation over the next five years. Several Tory MPs are lobbying to see recreational cannabis sales legalized, and Crispin Blunt – the first Conservative co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Reform – believes five years is a realistic target.

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