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2 July 2018

The curious case of cannabis seeds and the criminal law

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By Sangeeta Bedi

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Cannabis has hit the headlines again. In the US, Senator Chuck Schumer has just introduced legislation to decriminalise cannabis at the federal level. In the UK, institutions as diverse as the Green Party and the Institute of Economic Affairs have added their voices to the chorus of people calling for cannabis to be legalised. Against this background, a recent extradition request from the US to the UK has exposed an intriguing discrepancy between the criminal laws of both countries concerning cannabis seeds.

In The Queen on the application of the United States of America v Gypsy Nirvana [2018] EWHC 706, the US sought the extradition from the UK of a defendant accused of trafficking, exporting and importing marijuana seeds (and related money laundering). The District Judge at first instance found, and the Divisional Court on appeal agreed, that this conduct did not constitute a criminal offence contrary to UK law. Thus the “double criminality” rule of extradition was not satisfied, i.e. had the defendant trafficked, exported or imported marijuana seeds in the UK, he could not have been prosecuted in the UK. The defendant was therefore discharged from the extradition proceedings.

The Court’s decision is based on a deliberate but nonetheless curious lacuna in UK law. Cannabis has been classified as an illegal drug in the UK since 1928 (and since 1971 it has been illegal for doctors to prescribe it for medical use). However, at no point have cannabis seeds been criminalised under UK law. Cannabis seeds are not a controlled drug for the purposes of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (“MDA”). Consequently, selling cannabis seeds is not a supplying offence, nor is the export or import of cannabis seeds prohibited or restricted. The Court in Gypsy Nirvana cited with approval R v Jones [2010] 2 Cr App R 10, in which Leveson LJ observed that:

“it is not illegal to offer for sale or supply the paraphernalia associated with smoking cannabis and nor is it illegal to offer for sale or supply the equipment necessary to grow the plant, books which explain how cannabis may be grown or, indeed, cannabis seeds. As a result, there are a number of shops and other outlets which offer these goods for sale but it is obviously very important that these premises do not overstep the line and incite the commission of an offence.”

The reference to “overstepping the line” is understandable in light of section 6(1) MDA, which criminalises the cultivation of any plant of the genus cannabis. If D1 sells cannabis seeds to D2, D1 may, depending on the facts, be regarded as committing an inchoate criminal offence by inciting D2 to cultivate cannabis. In these circumstances, which inchoate offences could D1 be charged with?

Although the common law offence of incitement was repealed in 2008, several statutory offences of incitement remain in force. These include section 19 MDA, which provides that:

“It is an offence for a person to incite another to commit an offence under any other provision of this Act.”

There are similar offences in sections 44-46 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 (“SCA”). Section 44 SCA criminalises intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence. Section 45 SCA criminalises encouraging or assisting an offence, believing it will be committed. Section 46 SCA criminalises encouraging or assisting offences, believing one or more of those offences will be committed. A UK-based operator of a cannabis seed business is potentially exposed to all of these inchoate offences, even though cannabis seeds are not themselves illegal. When, therefore, does selling something which is not itself illegal attract criminal liability because the circumstances of the sale are such that they constitute incitement to commit an offence? Case law provides some guidance.

In R v Marlow [1998] 1 Cr App R 273, the defendant appealed against his conviction for incitement to cultivate cannabis contrary to section 19 MDA. The defendant had sold approximately 500 copies of his book on cannabis cultivation. The prosecution argued that the book was a “grower’s guide”, such that the defendant’s intention in inciting others to cultivate cannabis was self-evident. The defence argued that the book simply gave advice and information which was freely available elsewhere, and that its sale was too remote from the actions of those reading it to constitute incitement. His conviction was upheld.

Similarly, in Jones, the defendant’s conviction was upheld for incitement to cultivate cannabis contrary to section 19 MDA. The defendant’s shop sold smoking paraphernalia and hydrophonics equipment. An undercover police officer went to the shop to make test purchases and, posing as a would-be cannabis grower, asked the defendant for advice. After what was alleged to be a pretence that they were discussing tomatoes, that advice was freely given. The prosecution case was that the advice and sale of equipment amounted to incitement. The defence argued that the items he sold were not illegal and that he had taken steps to ensure he stayed within the law, i.e. not mentioning cannabis by name, only mentioning tomatoes, telling the undercover officer that it was illegal to cultivate cannabis and pointing to notices in the shop advising that it was illegal to cultivate cannabis. The Court found that it was open to the jury to conclude that the word “tomatoes” was no more than a device to avoid saying the word “cannabis”, and that the defendant’s positive advice about the safest and most productive way to grow “tomatoes” was evidence of an intention to incite cannabis cultivation.

To prove an offence of incitement it is not necessary to prove that anyone was in fact incited. The offence of incitement is committed when the inciting words or conduct take place. In Marlow, the book was capable of persuading someone to cultivate cannabis, and it was clearly published and sold for that purpose, regardless of whether anyone tried to implement its advice. Likewise, in Jones, the advice relayed to the undercover officer, together with the sale of the equipment, evidenced a desire to encourage the officer to cultivate cannabis.

In light of Marlow and Jones, it might be asked: doesn’t the act of selling cannabis seeds constitute sufficient incitement to cultivate them contrary to section 19 MDA or sections 44-46 SCA? What, after all, is the purpose of selling industrial quantities of cannabis seeds, often to repeat customers, if not for their cultivation? Even if the seller puts disclaimers on his website that cannabis cultivation is illegal, that is no different to the defendant in Jones who plastered his shop with such warnings to maintain a veneer of legality.

In Gypsy Nirvana, the court’s answer to these questions was that the essential conduct alleged against the defendant in the US was trafficking, exporting and importing marijuana seeds. There were no analogue offences under UK law which mapped onto this conduct. The conduct alleged in the US was not described as a conspiracy to cultivate cannabis, nor encouraging or assisting cannabis cultivation, for which there would be analogue offences under UK law.

Arguably, this is a narrow and artificial application of the dual criminality rule. It is well-established that the analogue offence under UK law does not need to be on all fours with the offences alleged in the requesting state. Extradition practitioners will be aware that, in practice, the UK courts often adopt a purposive (some might say creative) approach to finding a UK offence which maps onto the conduct alleged by the requesting state.

But in Gypsy Nirvana, unlike in Marlow or Jones, it seems that there was no evidence that the defendant had said or done anything which could be construed as positive encouragement or advice as to how the seeds should be cultivated. The evidence in the US extradition request proved only that the defendant had sold the seeds. Even the widely and elaborately drafted inchoate liability provisions of the SCA (which postdate Marlow and Jones) could not stretch wide enough to capture the conduct of which the defendant was accused. These provisions could not be used to close the deliberate lacuna in UK law that the mere selling of cannabis seeds is lawful, unlike the position under US law.

If cannabis is legalised in the US, the case of Gypsy Nirvana will become no more than an interesting but academic footnote. Its long-term interest is that it illustrates the limitations of the law of incitement, not just in relation to drugs offences, but across the whole panoply of offences in English criminal law.

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