Police criticised for ignoring changes in cannabis laws

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The Independent Online

Cannabis users who smoke in public will still be liable to arrest despite the Home Office's decision to relax the law on the drug, police announced yesterday.

Most people caught with small amounts of cannabis will be let off with a warning and have the drug confiscated. But the police can still arrest anyone taking the drug in public or if they have been repeatedly caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.

The 600-word guidance, issued yesterday by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), was criticised by drug campaigners who argued that little would change and that prosecution and arrest would remain a "geographical lottery".

The guidelines follow the decision last year by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug. Under the changes, which are expected to come into force in January, cannabis possession will carry a maximum jail term of two years, rather than five at the moment, although the maximum 14-year prison sentence for dealing in cannabis will remain unchanged.

The guidance says "the smoking of cannabis in public view is not in the spirit of re-classification" and officers "may" arrest in this circumstance. On the issue of possession, police chiefs say that "should an offender be found with a "small amount" of cannabis intended for personal use they should not, wherever possible, be arrested, "freeing up" policing time to concentrate activity against class A drugs".

A cannabis user who is repeatedly found with the drug should face arrest, although the idea of a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" policy was dropped last year.

Anyone in possession of the drug inside or near places where there are children, such as schools, youth clubs or play areas, should also face arrest.

Another aggravating feature leading to arrest would be where users cause a "local policing problem" which is creating a "fear of public disorder".

Police chiefs have refused to set a maximum "personal use" limit, arguing that this would encourage dealers to carry quantities just below the limit.

The way in which people aged under 18 found in possession of cannabis are dealt with will remain unchanged: they will receive a formal warning at a police station.

Adults will be given an on-the-spot warning and have the drugs confiscated in a tamperproof, sealed and signed bag.

An officer who finds someone in possession of the drug would still have to record the incident as a crime, the guidelines said.

Acpo's drugs spokesman, Andy Hayman, the Chief Constable of Norfolk, said: "In the spirit of the Home Secretary's decision to reclassify cannabis, the new guidance recommends that there should be a presumption against arrest. In practice, this means that in the majority of cases officers will issue a warning and confiscate the drug."

Danny Kushlick, director of Transform, a drugs reform group, described the proposed changes on cannabis as a "fiasco" and argued that the because the police were "hanging on to the arrest powers" little would change.

"Your chances of being arrested and prosecuted remain a lottery and continue to depend on which police force is involved," he said.

CANNABIS: THE KEY QUESTIONS

Will cannabis users who smoke in the street be arrested?

Probably. Cannabis has been re-classified, not decriminalised, so smoking in public is still illegal. Some users may be given a warning and their drugs confiscated.

What amount is considered suitable for 'personal use' and how much will lead to an arrest?

This remains unspecified. Police chiefs argues that it would be difficult for officers to weigh and determine exact quantities on the beat, and is reluctant to state exact amounts in case dealers carry smaller amounts in order to continue trading.

Is it legal to smoke cannabis at home?

No. If caught the police would normally issue a warning and confiscate the drug.

Will fewer cannabis users be arrested under the new rules?

Yes. The main aim of the guidelines is to free up police time spent on cannabis in order to concentrate on the problems caused by harder drugs.