Keep off the grass?

What happens when you are caught in possession of cannabis depends as much on where you are as how much you've got. Clive Coleman explains
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The Independent Online

Here's your challenge. Get 10 friends together and ask them: (Question 1) is possessing a small amount of cannabis a criminal offence? I bet you the price of a quarter-ounce that at least half of them say no. Once the responses to question one are in, ask them (Question 2) what they think would happen to me if I was caught with a small amount? And here you can go all Tarrant-like on them, bring down the lights, listen out for unnatural coughing, and offer the options (a) the cannabis would be confiscated and I'd be cautioned, (b) I'd be arrested but not charged, (c) I'd be arrested and charged. They're not allowed to phone a friend with a cannabis habit and they can't ask the audience.

Here's your challenge. Get 10 friends together and ask them: (Question 1) is possessing a small amount of cannabis a criminal offence? I bet you the price of a quarter-ounce that at least half of them say no. Once the responses to question one are in, ask them (Question 2) what they think would happen to me if I was caught with a small amount? And here you can go all Tarrant-like on them, bring down the lights, listen out for unnatural coughing, and offer the options (a) the cannabis would be confiscated and I'd be cautioned, (b) I'd be arrested but not charged, (c) I'd be arrested and charged. They're not allowed to phone a friend with a cannabis habit and they can't ask the audience.

In true quiz-show tradition, I'll now take the journalistic equivalent of an infuriating ad break before revealing the answers.

Cannabis was re-classified from a Class B to a Class C drug in January. That put it into the same category as drugs such as steroids and Valium. Prior to the re-classification, the possession of any Class C drug was not an arrestable offence, but the law was changed in the case of simple possession of cannabis. Not only that, but the maximum penalty for the supply, dealing, production and trafficking of all Class C drugs was increased from five to 14 years. This effectively meant that the maximum tariff for dealing cannabis remained the same as it was pre-classification, but also that the maximum penalty for other Class C drugs such as GHB, Valium and steroids, was increased substantially. Confused? You will be. If, despite reclassification, possessing a small quantity of cannabis is an arrestable offence, surely you'll be arrested for it? Well, that kind of depends.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has issued Enforcement Guidelines that give hope to the devoted possessor of small quantities of the drug. They provide that "the presumption should be against using this power (of arrest) for simple possession offences". Ah, so it's an arrestable offence, but you won't be arrested for committing it? Not quite. The presumption against arrest can be rebutted where a person is smoking in public view, if the person is a repeat offender, if he or she is under 17, and perhaps most significantly where there is a locally identified policing problem.

And that's precisely what appears to have happened in the London Borough of Camden. According to local solicitors, Camden has instituted what amounts to a zero-tolerance policy on cannabis possession. It's not something the police are prepared to acknowledge publicly. Indeed, Chief Superintendent Mark Heath has issued a statement saying that, "There is no set policy specific to the policing of drugs in Camden. Officers in Camden will police the law accordingly and use their discretion where required". But on the ground, people are being arrested and sometimes charged for possessing small quantities of cannabis. "It has been confirmed to me by a high ranking police officer in Camden that there is a now a zero-tolerance policy on Cannabis possession," says Greg Foxsmith, a solicitor at Hodge Jones and Allen in Camden Road.

The police do not appear to have publicised the change in policing policy. No ads have appeared in local papers, no posters have been put up. So, it's possible for someone with a small amount of cannabis to get on the Tube in west London, travel through several boroughs without any hassle from the police, and be met by police with sniffer dogs at Camden Town and find themselves arrested. "It's policing by post code," says Richard Parry, a solicitor with Camden-based BSB Solicitors. "Someone aware of the general presumption against arrest can wander innocently into Camden and find themselves with a criminal record which might prevent them from travelling to the United States, working with children and could lead to them losing their existing job."

So why are the police changing their cannabis policy without warning the public? In the Lock area of Camden Town there is serious Class A drugs problem. Maggie French runs The London Waterbus Company, which takes passengers from the lock along the canal to London Zoo and Little Venice. "One Saturday we pulled out of the lock and saw 20 people injecting on the towpath. Customers have been beaten up, so have my staff. I've seen over 30 needles in the lock, and kids were swimming nearby." And the policy has certainly worked. There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of drug users around the canal footpath. But is a zero-tolerance policy on cannabis possession the best way of dealing with a Class A drugs problem? "I've known of Class A drug users and dealers mugging people," says Greg Foxsmith, "but I've never heard of anyone being mugged by an occasional cannabis user." Richard Parry agrees: "This is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It's also a waste of police resources." But Maggie Frenchdisagrees. "If you allow people to possess and smoke cannabis openly, it acts as a magnet. The area is seen as tolerant on drugs. It's the same dealers who sell cannabis, skunk [the stronger form of the drug] and the Class A drugs."

So, how widespread is the policy of zero tolerance on cannabis possession? The City of Westminster is rumoured to be tough on cannabis possession, but it's difficult to find out. The police are not obliged to inform the public of a change in policy due to a local policing problem. This is in contrast to their power to create "dispersal" areas under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 in which they can disperse groups if there are reasonable grounds for believing that their actions are likely to result in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed. Here they must publish a map of the designated area in a local newspaper or by public notices. Camden Lock, incidentally, is part of a wider dispersal area.

Let's return to quiz night. If you'd have gone for answers (a) or (b) you could have lost up to an eighth of an ounce. Contrary to the perception of many, the possession of small quantities of cannabis remains a criminal offence. Yes, there is a presumption that you will not be arrested, but that depends on your age, whether you smoke it in public, and where you are in the country. If a local police force has used its powers under the ACPO guidelines to identify a policing problem in an area, you can be arrested and charged. The message is simple. If you're worried about being caught in possession of cannabis, stay at home.