Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jun 2003
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson, Martin Bright


Labour Is Not Going Soft On Drug Users, Ministers Insist, As The Police 
Gain New Search-And-Arrest Powers

People who allow cannabis to be smoked at parties at their homes could face 
a 14-year jail sentence under new laws designed to show that the Government 
is not going soft on drugs.

Ministers have delayed the controversial reclassification of cannabis from 
Class B to Class C until the end of the year to coincide with the 
introduction of the harsh new penalties. The move was originally planned 
for next month, but was postponed after lobbying by police and anti-drug 
groups, who feared that the Government was sending out the wrong message.

The tougher sentences will also affect universities which fail to stop 
students supplying each other with drugs at halls of residence, voluntary 
organisations working with drug users and even parents who tolerate the 
casual use of soft drugs by their children and friends.

The measure to increase the maximum sentence for production, supply and 
possession with intent to supply from five to 14 years is contained in the 
new Criminal Justice Bill, which is expected to receive the royal assent in 
November. The legislation will apply to all property owners and tenants. 
The crime of 'supply' need not involve money changing hands so, in theory, 
householders who allow a joint of cannabis to be handed over at a dinner 
party face the new sentence.

The controversial penalties are primarily aimed at crack houses, which have 
become a police priority, but could equally be applied to domestic homes 
and other private premises.

The measures were also designed to target dealers to prevent an explosion 
in the cannabis market as a result of its change of status, but drug 
campaigners last night described the measures as draconian. They say that 
individuals and organisations who fail to take action against casual drug 
use will face exactly the same sentences as the members of organised 
criminal gangs involved in trafficking lorryloads of cannabis.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the drugs reform charity Drugscope, called 
for a thorough sentence review of drug offences. 'This is a retrograde step 
that goes against all the evidence and advice the Government has been given 
by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, which has said that 
cannabis is not as harmful as other drugs,' he said.

As a Class C drug, cannabis will remain illegal, but there will be an 
assumption against arrest for simple possession. The power of arrest would 
be used only in 'aggravating' circumstances, although these have yet to be 
defined. The change is intended to allow police to focus their efforts on 
Class A drugs, chiefly cocaine and heroin.

The cannabis market in the UK is worth more than ?1 billion a year and 
supplies around three million regular users. Many of those involved in 
high-level trafficking are also involved in other drugs and other serious 
forms of organised crime. Dozens of murders and shootings have been 
directly linked to the trade in cannabis.

The delay has been partially caused by the need to rethink the original 
proposals, which would have meant that those trafficking in large 
quantities of cannabis would have faced a lower maximum penalty than those 
smuggling tobacco or alcohol. It would also have meant that police would 
have been unable to arrest anyone for smoking a joint or search to see if 
they were carrying large quantities of drugs.

Both these issues have now been addressed by one leading drug charity, 
which said that the Government had amended the law so much that the effect 
of the reclassification would be minimal.

But anti-drugs campaigners say the amendments are necessary to prevent 
massive growth in the market. David Raynes of the National Drugs Prevention 
Alliance said there was already anecdotal evidence that cannabis use had 
risen since the announcement of reclassification.

'There is a lot of confusion out there. There are lots of 12- and 
13-year-old kids who now think that cannabis is legal. Based on the 
experiences of other places such as Holland, South Australia and Alaska, it 
is likely that the market is going to go up significantly. Our view has 
always been that the Government should do nothing, say nothing and change 
nothing that might encourage drug-taking. But this is just what they have 

The new law stops short of full decriminalisation. Officers will be able to 
arrest and search a suspect if they are deemed guilty of 'aggravated 
possession' involving public disorder or children, or if the offenders 
refuse to hand over their drugs.

A study published last year on policing and cannabis showed that 69 per 
cent of police officers already dealt with cannabis possession in an 
informal way, often throwing the drugs down the nearest drain rather than 
arresting the offender.
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