It was a year ago this month that the British government adopted the reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug, meaning that in most cases, persons caught with a joint or a small bag would no longer be arrested but would instead be given informal warnings. According to Metropolitan Police statistics, arrests have dropped by a third and thousands of police man hours have been saved, but some London officials are grumbling that the relaxation in the cannabis law has led some to think the stuff is now legal -- it is not -- and to the pervasive stench of pot fumes on London streets.
Mayor Ken Livingston's police advisor, Lee Jasper, an early and prominent proponent of decriminalizing cannabis possession, was singing a slightly different tune at a City Hall press conference Monday, according to an account carried in the London Evening Standard. "If you see the extent to which cannabis is smoked outside schools, on London Transport, it's unacceptable," he said. "I think public use of cannabis, particularly in certain areas, should be subject to some sort of enforcement other than that which is currently used."
London police have complained of confrontations with young people who believe they now have the right to smoke the weed openly. A Metropolitan Police report on the relaxing of the cannabis law echoed that theme, noting: "The reclassification has sent out a mixed and confusing message to police officers and members of the public."
Community leaders in Brixton, which began experimenting with relaxation a year before the rest of the country, also complained about the confusion over the law. "The police have focused on crack, which is good," said Pastor Frank Brookes of Raleigh Park Baptist Church. "But Brixton has deteriorated. I have two children and we are constantly in the slipstream of people smoking cannabis. Most people now think it's legal. Even the police are not sure."
Under the reclassification, which went into effect January 29, 2004, while cannabis possession remains an arrestable offense punishable by up to two years in jail, most users are given warnings unless there are "aggravating factors" such as smoking in public view or possessing the drug near a a school. There are also indications of what some reformers call "post code policing," or variations in the likelihood of being arrested depending on the attitude of police in any given jurisdiction.
That police can continue to arrest people for cannabis possession is a flaw in the law, said Dame Edith Runciman, who chaired a 2000 report calling for relaxing the drug laws. "The decision to retain powers of arrest was a great pity -- it was giving with one hand and taking away with the other. I think [the reclassification of cannabis] created quite a lot of unnecessary confusion which has not been wholly dispelled. I'm hearing that there's a huge disparity between different areas, commanders and forces as to whether cannabis users are arrested and cautioned, or just receive an informal warning."
According to Metropolitan Police figures, in 2003 -- before reclassification -- there were 24,535 marijuana charges laid; last year, that number declined only slightly to 22,315. But the number of arrests decreased by a third, and according to the British Home Office, that will result in the saving of 180,000 hours of police time this year.