Britain's Pending Cannabis Decrim Will Allow for Some Arrests 9/19/03

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The British government's glacially-paced reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug, now expected to take place in January, will allow police officers to make arrests for possession in some circumstances. According to guidelines for the new regime developed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (, marijuana possession "will not ordinarily be an arrestable offense," but there are significant exceptions:

  • Smoking in public
  • Smoking near schools and playgrounds
  • Repeat offenses
  • "Creating fear of a public disorder"
"The new guidance recommends that there should be a presumption against arrest," said Andy Hayman, Chief Constable for the Norfolk Police, who drafted the guidelines. "In practice, this means that in the majority of cases officers will issue a warning and confiscate the drug. That said, despite reclassification, it remains illegal to possess cannabis."

The guidelines follow Home Secretary David Blunkett's decision, replete with much wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth, last year to reclassify cannabis. Under the rescheduling, cannabis possessors remain theoretically liable for a two-year prison sentence, down from five years for Class B drugs. But because the government has changed penalties for sales of Class C drugs -- it was only five years -- the maximum 14-year sentence for marijuana distribution remains unchanged.

For British drug reform advocates the changes add up to much of a muchness, to use a twee Britishism, or in plain American, not much of a change at all. "We don't see much difference with the current situation," said Danny Kushlick, executive director of Transform Drug Policy Institute (, a leading British drug policy nonprofit organization. "What this does is codify police discretion in making arrests. Most police will choose not to arrest people for simple possession," he told DRCNet.

For British Member of the European Parliament Chris Davies (, a stalwart of drug policy reform who once had himself arrested for cannabis possession as an act of civil disobedience, the pending reclassification is a case of one step forward, two steps back. "Hundreds, indeed millions, of people have been arrested, fined or even imprisoned for the possession of cannabis, and these new guidelines show that it has all been a complete folly -- using up police resources and wrecking the lives of many cannabis users who have done no harm to anyone other than themselves," said Davies.

Chris Davies, MEP
But Davies was harshly critical of the stiff penalties for dealing. "These new police guidelines are a small step forward, but the Home Secretary David Blunkett is about to take two steps backwards," he argued. "If dealers are going to face 14 years in prison for the supply of cannabis there is no incentive not to sell other drugs as well. Cannabis users may be pushed into the hands of heroin dealers. Instead the government should be working to break the link between soft and hard drugs," he said.

Transform's Kushlick added that the ACPO guidelines will result in differential enforcement depending on location. "What you will have is postal code punishment," he said. "Your chances of being arrested and prosecuted remain a lottery and continue to depend on which police force is involved."

More importantly for Kushlick, reclassifying marijuana does not address the burning drug issue now facing Britain. "They are concentrating on the wrong drug," he said. "A lot of senior policymakers, police officers, and members of the general public know that the major issues in terms of the collateral damage from prohibition arise from cocaine and heroin, not marijuana. The Home Office says that half of all property crime is related to supporting a crack or heroin habit. Reclassifying cannabis won't make a big difference, and it isn't tackling the major causes of damage associated with prohibition."

Police argue that not arresting cannabis users will free up resources to tackle the trade in hard drugs, but Kushlick isn't buying that argument. "They can focus on heroin or cocaine dealing all they want, but we all know that if you bust dealers, there is always someone to take their place," he said.

When asked why police insisted on retaining the power of arrest for cannabis possession, Kushlick suggested two reasons. "First, there is the classic reactionary position of the police, that we should not roll back laws against something that is banned," he said. "But there is also a more cynical reason. People who are criminals may also be cannabis smokers. To the extent that police can't catch them committing real crimes, they can at least arrest them for their stash, and then they can search their house. They need an arrest to search the house."

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Issue #303, 9/19/03 Editorial: Don't Stop There | A Clean, Well-Lit Place to Shoot Dope: Western Hemisphere's First Government-Approved Safe Injection Site Opens in Vancouver | And Then There Were Four: Canadian Marijuana Possession Laws Crumble | Britain's Pending Cannabis Decrim Will Allow for Some Arrests | More Than Just Memories: Cheryl Miller Memorial Project in DC Next Week | Newsbrief: Seattle Voters Tell Police to Make Marijuana Possession Lowest Priority | Newsbrief: Marijuana Legal in Alaska, But Attorney General Orders Cops to Confiscate It, Work with Feds to Build Cases | Newsbrief: Ecstasy Scandal Grows as Second Study Retracted | Newsbrief: Drug Policy Alliance Issues Report on Changes in State Drug Laws | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Reefer Madness in the Heart of Africa | Newsbrief: Campaign Comments -- John Edwards on Industrial Hemp | Newsbrief: Murderous Thai Drug War in Final Drive to be "Drug Free" | Newsbrief: UN Agency Calls for Change in Colombia Drug War Strategy | Current Action Alerts: Medical Marijuana, Plan Colombia, HEA, Ashcroft's Attack on Judicial Discretion | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | Errata: Dutch MedMj, Ecstasy Study Stories Last Two Weeks | The Reformer's Calendar

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