Police enforce 'chaotic' drug laws on whim

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The Independent Online

The Government's drug advisers last night called on the Home Office to modernise drugs laws ahead of a new report highlighting the haphazard way they are applied.

The call comes amid increasing evidence that policing of Britain's drug laws is in disarray – based more upon the whims of local police chiefs than the statute book.

New research published in the spring by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the UK's largest social research charity, will highlight the hit-or-miss approach to drug enforcement taken by the police.

According to latest figures, 60 per cent of drug offenders in Warwickshire escape with a caution, while only 18 per cent of those living in Durham will get the same lenient treatment.

The variations up and down the country and even within forces are huge. In some parts of London cannabis use is pursued vigorously, while in Lambeth, south London, offenders are not even cautioned. Cannabis users caught on Brixton's streets now receive no more than a formal warning, its liberal police chief Commander Brian Paddick anxious not to waste police hours on trivial drugs offences.

The picture has been muddied further by a series of submissions to the Home Affairs Select Committee which have revealed a huge gulf in opinion between police officers on the ground and their superiors. The Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said "the siren calls for decriminalisation and legalisation are not cries for reality, they are the voice of surrender and despair". Meanwhile, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales Police, last month suggested the only way to win the war on all drugs might be to legalise them, comparing Britain's policy outlawing the sale and possession of illegal drugs to that of alcohol prohibition in 1920s America.

The findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report will add further fuel to the belief that policing of Britain's drug laws is in disarray. Last night, DrugScope, the charity which advises the Government on drugs policy, called on the Home Office to "modernise" existing laws and iron out regional variations in policing.

Roger Howard, DrugScope's chief executive, said: "Drugs is an emotive and complex issue, for which there are no simple solutions, so it is perhaps not surprising that we see a wide range of opinion on drugs policy across different policing constituencies. However, what is important is that drug laws are applied consistently across the country and the current variations that occur are unacceptable.

"We need the Government to continue its efforts to modernise the drug laws and to give leadership to ensure that people get fair and equal treatment wherever they happen to be. It must not be left to the police to decide how drug laws should be interpreted."

The new findings are still being evaluated by a team at the Criminal Policy Research Unit at South Bank University, whose director Professor Mike Hough said preliminary findings show regional differences in the policing of cannabis possession and dealing. "We have looked at cannabis possession offences and how they are dealt with," said Prof Hough, "There quite obviously are differences between police forces and the treatment meted out to users."

Franklin Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers, one of Britain's largest criminal law firms, said: "Police forces need a policy that is consistent throughout the whole country. For simple cannabis possession, all offenders should get a caution and no more."

Eddie Ellison, a former head of the Metropolitan Police drugs squad, is in favour of the legalisation and quality control of drugs – in order to take the supply and profits away from criminals – and of providing treatment for users.

Forces were entitled to operate their own policies within the framework of the existing laws, he said. But he wondered whether a variety of approaches might be in breach of the Human Rights Act which entitles everyone to be treated equally under the law. Article 14 prohibits discrimination on grounds of "national or social origin".

Mr Ellison said police had a history of leading social change ahead of legal changes. "The police service has always responded to changes in public opinion faster than legislation," he said.