Jails to take softer line on cannabis

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The Independent Online
PRISON governors are to be urged to take a softer line against prisoners using cannabis as part of a new government strategy on drug use in prison.

Instead, more resources will be directed at tackling heroin users by subjecting them to repeated drug-testing and greater punishments.

The Independent has acquired a copy of the 23-page review document which forms the basis for the new strategy, which will be announced on Tuesday by drugs minister George Howarth.

Prison service officials have been concerned that the large-scale use of mandatory drugs-testing has led to thousands of drug-using inmates being given up to 35 "extra days" on their sentence. More than 16,500 prisoners - mostly cannabis users - were given punishments of extra days in the last financial year. This is equivalent to filling one and a half jails for a year at a cost of over pounds 10m.

Governors are to be urged to "distinguish between drug markets which generate the most harm to individuals and prisoner safety and those that are less damaging". They are advised to "increase the differential" between punishments for cannabis and for Class A drugs and to consider alternative punishments such as loss of privileges and restrictions on visits.

Both staff and prisoners indicated in the report that they believe the system bears down too heavily on cannabis users. It states that 82 per cent of prisoners agreed with the statement: "People should be able to smoke cannabis in prison without fear of punishment."

The review adds that "more surprisingly perhaps, interviews with wing officers revealed ambivalent attitudes to reporting prisoners for smoking cannabis". Some 44 per cent of staff agreed with the statement: "Personal use of cannabis is not detrimental to good order and discipline".

The review makes clear that drugs policies in prison will fall into line with those recently announced by "drugs tsar" Keith Hellawell for the wider public. This means a shift in emphasis towards improved drug treatment and education in order to reduce demand.

The report carries some positive findings on the extent of drug use in prison, which was running out of control only two years ago. Positive drug tests among prisoners have fallen from 34.6 per cent in December 1995 to less than 20 per cent in the early months of this year.

The mandatory random drug-testing programme, which requires some 10 per cent of inmates to be tested, is expensive. The review recommends that governors reduce the amount of mandatory testing and concentrate resources on inmateswho have previously been found to misuse a Class A drug.

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