British Home Secretary David Blunkett's vow a year ago to reschedule cannabis from a class B to a class C drug by this month has fallen by the wayside in the face of opposition from British police commanders. Now the promised rescheduling will not take place until at least year's end, and only after the passage of the Labor government's Criminal Justice Act, which will include revised penalties for cannabis possession and sales.
The new penalties for class C drugs -- such as tranquilizers and anabolic steroids -- will be up to five years for possession and up to 14 years for sale or importation. That is a substantial increase from current penalties of two years for possession and seven years for sale or importation. But the five-year figure weighs heavily in the calculations of police because under British law they are not allowed to search persons whose suspected crime warrants a sentence of less than five years.
"The police complained that people would blow smoke in their faces," according to a spokesperson for DrugScope (http://www.drugscope.org.uk), a British drug policy think tank. "They said they must have the ability to stop and search people in aggravated circumstances, and they can't do that unless they have that five-year sentence," she told DRCNet.
Still, the Home Office vowed that arrests of cannabis users and possessors would occur only in rare circumstances. "There will be a presumption against arrest, except where public order is at risk or where children are vulnerable," the spokesman said. "The police will also ensure that those who repeatedly flout the law are arrested and dealt with. Young people found in possession of cannabis will receive a formal warning at a police station."
But not everyone is sanguine about the Home Office's assurances. "There is a sort of Catch-22 here, isn't there?" asked DrugScope's spokesperson. "They will reschedule cannabis but increase the penalties for the Class C drugs. The police will still have the same power to arrest people, so the question is will they use it to harass people? Police say in most cases they will only stop and caution, but we will have to see."
Even some police commanders have expressed concerns about the retained sentencing powers. "Chief constables have said that parliament or the government cannot tell a constable when and why they exercise their discretion. It's a matter for the officer concerned," one police source told the Independent, warning that allowing different approaches in policing cannabis would send "all sorts of mixed messages" to users.
According to the Independent, Norfolk Chief Constable Andy Hayman, chair of the ACPO drug committee, was unable to persuade his fellows to accept guidelines with no arrests until a third offense. Now he will attempt to get a slightly tougher set of guidelines -- allowing for arrest in specific circumstances, such as smoking near a school -- pushed through ACPO at a meeting later this month.
Given that Blunkett's current cannabis package will retain arrest penalties, the ACPO guidelines will be crucial in determining how the law will be applied on the street. "We are waiting for the guidelines from ACPO," said the DrugScope spokesperson. "Then we will have an idea of how police will respond. Since there is no real legislative difference, the guidelines will be key."
If the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair seems to be moving one step sideways on cannabis, at least it has dropped a Blunkett proposal that would have been a real step back. Blunkett had proposed extending the Britain's crack house law, which allows the government to shut down premises involved in the drug trade for up to three months, to include class B and class C drugs. But when correspondence between Blunkett and other ministers about the possibility of padlocking the homes of cannabis users was leaked to the Times of London two weeks ago, the ensuing uproar killed that misbegotten proposal dead.