Cautions increase as police change tactics

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The Independent Online
A POLICY of decriminalisation of cannabis is being quietly employed by police, according to a Labour MP. The claim has been prompted by figures which show that police are routinely cautioning people for the possession of cannabis.

New figures released by the Home Office have revealed a dramatic increase in the numbers arrested and cautioned by the police for possession of cannabis. In 1986 only 4,000 of those arrested for possession were cautioned but by 1995 that figure had risen to more than 40,000.

The statistics, which cover the 10-year period from 1986 to 1995 (the latest available) indicate how the police have changed tactics in response to the increasing number determined to defy the current drug laws. Supporters of decriminalisation believe the increase in cautions is evidence that the law against cannabis is unenforceable, a point made by the Independent on Sunday's campaign to decriminalise the drug.

"These figures show that in practice we already have a form of creeping decriminalisation in action," said Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport.

Mr Flynn has been leading the campaign in Parliament to create cross- party support for reform of the l971 Misuse of Drugs Act. "It makes me angry to think of the massive waste of money and police man hours these statistics represent." The figures were "further proof, despite the bloodcurdling threats of politicians, that the current law is unenforceable,"said Mr Flynn.

Home Office minister George Howarth released the new figures last week in a written response to questions from Mr Flynn. Police in England and Wales dealt with 14,500 individuals on basic possession offences in 1986: 10 years later that had shot up to more than 64,000.However, the number of people jailed for possession has stayed at around 900 a year.

The data for England and Wales also show that the total prosecuted for unlawful possession of cannabis more than doubled from 11,493 in 1986 to 24,386 in 1995.

Greg Poulter, deputy director of Release, the drugs advice charity, believes the court system would collapse if the 40,000 cautions became prosecutions.

"Cautioning is not a light let-off. A caution is a serious matter as an individual," said Mr Poulter. He said the figures suggest police attitudes may be fact be hardening by using cautions rather than taking no action.

In 1995, 930 were imprisoned for possession of cannabis and 1,700 for dealing.

q This weekend more than half a million people in Britain will take some form of illicit drug. Today on LWT at 1.10pm, Jonathan Dimbleby chairs a televised debate on decriminalising cannabis. The speakers include Paul Flynn MP, Chief Superintendent Brian Mackenzie and Dr John Marks.