Police chief acknowledges 'muddle' over drug law

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain's most high-ranking police chief admitted yesterday that there was widespread confusion and "muddle" surrounding the changes to the law on cannabis due to take place at the end of the month.

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said some people mistakenly believed that the drug was being legalised.

He said there was a "massive amount of muddle" over the changes, which will see cannabis downgraded from a class B to a class C drug on 29 January.

He also conceded that the decision to limit an experimental "softly, softly" policing approach to cannabis possession to Brixton, in the south London borough of Lambeth, had been a mistake.

The Home Office issued a statement yesterday saying that it was spending £1m in the next few weeks on an advertising campaign to inform the police, young people, and cannabis users what the changes to the law will mean.

The reclassification has been controversial, with some people arguing that it sends the wrong message to teenagers and is confusing, while drug reform groups believe that it does not go far enough.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, argues that it will allow the police to concentrate on more harmful drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin.

Under the changes, possessing the drug will cease to be an arrestable offence in most situations, but officers will retain the power to arrest in aggravated circumstances such as smoking the drug outside schools or on the street. In most cases, the drug will be confiscated and users will be given a warning. The maximum penalty for the possession of cannabis will be reduced from five years' to two years' imprisonment. Children under 18 caught with the drug will usually have two warnings before they are charged.

But Sir John told LBC Radio: "There is a massive amount of muddle about where we are with cannabis - cannabis, the possession of cannabis, the use of cannabis, is still against the law. You are committing an offence if you have it in your possession and if you use it. I think that needs to be made absolutely clear.

"We have to get that out in a very simplified form to schools and, likewise, what our policy is in terms of when people have got it for their own purposes - small amounts."

Asked whether it was the job of the police or the Government to enforce the message that cannabis was still illegal, Sir John replied: "Both - but it's an issue that has been raised by a lot of officers and they feel that we need to get that out as soon as possible."

Sir John said that concern and confusion, which has been expressed by headteachers, lawyers and even police officers, had been prompted initially by the 2002 Brixton experiment, which was run by the then divisional commander, Brian Paddick. Under that scheme, officers were instructed to give cautions to those found in possession of small amounts of the drug rather than arresting them.

Sir John said: "Most of this started with this pilot scheme in Brixton and I think that we, I, made a mistake in just making that pilot down in Lambeth, in Brixton. I think because of the nature of Brixton and the fact that a large amount of attention was focused on Brixton, it made it like a goldfish bowl.

"We should have perhaps done a pilot in Brixton but possibly in another two or three boroughs as well."