'Cannabis leniency is attracting hard drugs'

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The Independent Online

The lenient police strategy towards cannabis use in Brixton has attracted more users and dealers in hard drugs to the area, the Police Federation claimed yesterday.

Fred Broughton, the federation chairman, argued against decriminalising cannabis possession and said the six-month policing experiment was fuelling demand for drugs.

Under the Metropolitan Police policy – designed to free police to investigate more serious offences – possession of small amounts of cannabis is dealt with by a caution rather than prosecution. The experiment is being studied by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who is considering whether to downgrade cannabis from a class B to class C drug.

Mr Broughton told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee the scheme had failed to cut drug use and that cannabis was now being openly smoked in the streets of Brixton. He said: "There's anecdotal evidence the change in procedures is encouraging more people to come to the area and more people are involving themselves in cannabis.

"There is also anecdotal evidence that more serious matters – crack abusers and crack dealers – are becoming more visible and more active."

He added: "I don't think what is currently practised in south London is reducing the number of people who are using cannabis or using other drugs. The reverse seems to be true."

Mr Broughton, whose organisation represents 126,000 police officers, said his officers in the area had mixed views of the scheme, adding: "Whether it is working, or whether it is unsuccessful, I think the jury is still out for us."

He said teachers and pupils in the area viewed the initiative, in effect, as decriminalising cannabis and sending out the message that use of the drug was "OK".

Mr Broughton also said the Police Federation did not necessarily agree with Mr Blunkett over his desire to relax penalties for cannabis use.

He said: "The signal has been sent in relation to the reclassification that cannabis is OK – and cannabis is certainly not OK. The evidence is pretty conclusive that it is a major problem. We are trying to enforce the law and if the law is unclear or confused then policing that problem becomes much more difficult."

A Met Police spokesman said: "There is a problem with crack cocaine in Lambeth, specifically Brixton, but it has been the case for some time. There is nothing to suggest there's been an increase or decrease. We are unable to gauge that."

He said a review of the cannabis project would be completed by the beginning of March, adding: "We believe there has been a positive effect on the borough and there's a feeling that it has been a success."

The select committee has spent months studying the existing legislation on drugs. It has heard a series of calls for Britain to be brought into line with the Netherlands by decriminalising possession of cannabis. But Baroness Green-field, professor at Oxford University's department of pharmacology, said regular cannabis use by youngsters could leave them with serious health problems.

She said: "What we have to tell young people is that they are tampering with the most special part of their bodies – their brains, their minds – over a long time."

She also said cannabis caused accidents and impaired performance at work and school.