'Softly softly' scheme on soft drugs lets off hundreds with a caution

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The Independent Online

Turning a "blind eye" to cannabis use has saved 2,000 hours of police time since the pilot scheme was introduced last July, Scotland Yard has said.

The trial scheme in the south London borough of Lambeth has resulted in more than 400 drug users escaping prosecution for possession. The scheme is also estimated to have avoided potential court costs running into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Metropolitan Police, which is extending the pilot until spring, said that since the trial began it had cautioned about 75 drug users a month.

In the period from July to the end of November, 381 were dealt with under the scheme, which is centred on the Brixton area. In the same period in 2000, 278 drug users were arrested and taken to court for cannabis possession. Each cannabis arrest results in about five hours of extra work for police officers and can cost £500 in court time if the defendant pleads not guilty.

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the south London scheme had been a success. "Cannabis use and possession is a social matter, not a criminal one. This approach has freed police to pursue serious offenders."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has been impressed by the scheme and has told MPs that he wants cannabis possession to be made into a non-arrestable offence across the country. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is expected to give approval for such a change by spring.

However, some police officers are said to be unhappy that they still have to complete considerable amounts of paperwork even for the new "caution and confiscation" approach.

Other police forces have voiced reservations, saying the scheme denies officers the opportunity to search offenders' houses and find evidence of more serious crimes.

Commander Brian Paddick, the head of Lambeth police, accepted that the scheme would benefit from some modification. He said: "I think it's been successful because officers can deal with cannabis quicker and get back on the streets, placing the emphasis on aiming to arrest people for possessing and dealing crack cocaine."

A team of consultants appointed by Scotland Yard and the Police Foundation is evaluating the scheme and will report by the end of February.