Cannabis policy goes up in smoke

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The Independent Online

Chief constables are refusing to sanction new proposals that reduce police powers of arrest against cannabis smokers in a rebellion against the Government.

The hardline approach by members of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is expected to lead to huge differences in how cannabis is policed in Britain.

It will also cause a schism between regional police forces and the Metropolitan Police, which intends to back plans by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for officers to arrest cannabis users only in exceptional circumstances.

Last year, Mr Blunkett announced that he planned to downgrade cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, effectively allowing it to be smoked for personal use. He took the decision in part to ensure that police forces targeted their overstretched resources towards hard drugs.

But the Home Secretary was forced into partial retreat. After fierce lobbying by senior police officers, he announced new laws enabling police to retain the power of arrest for cannabis possession as well as a 14-year sentence for dealers.

These new powers are contained in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is likely to gain Royal Assent later this year.

Andy Hayman, chairman of Acpo's drugs committee and the Chief Constable of Norfolk, battled to persuade other chief constables to accept a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy, but this was rejected on the grounds that it would be too difficult for officers to monitor users.

At a meeting of chief constables next month he will attempt to push through a watered-down strategy proposing arrest in specific circumstances, for example where users have been found in possession outside schools. But chief constables of individual forces have argued they must be allowed to decide when to make arrests.

A police insider said that the different approaches in policing towards cannabis will send "all sorts of mixed messages" to users.

"Chief constables have said that Parliament or the Government cannot tell a constable when and why they exercise their discretion. It's a matter for the officer concerned," the source said.

An Independent on Sunday survey of half of British police forces on how they treated cannabis users over the last financial year shows remarkable discrepancies and indicates that the system is in chaos. The number of people cautioned by Cleveland Police for possessing class B drugs, for example, increased from 117 in 2001 to 186 in 2002. This compares with Essex Police where there was a much smaller rise - from 411 in 2001 to 441 in 2002.

"There is major confusion going on," said Roger Howard, chief executive of drugs charity Drugscope. "Our advice would be for the police to let go of this issue and to let the Home Secretary do what he intended in the first place and not have arrestability."