HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Straw Relaxes Law On Cannabis Possession
Pubdate: Thu, 08 Feb 2001
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact:  1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Author: Ian Burrell, Home Affairs Correspondent


The Government moved yesterday to relax the laws on the use of cannabis by 
pledging to remove the "stigma" attached to hundreds of thousands of people 
caught in possession of the drug.

In an important move towards liberalisation of the law, the Home Office 
said people cautioned for having cannabis would no longer have to declare 
their offence to employers or immigration officials as their offences would 
be immediately treated as "spent".

In another concession to liberalisation, the Home Office said it was 
prepared to consider new sentencing guidelines to ensure that people found 
guilty of supplying drugs to friends were not treated by the courts as 
"professional dealers".

The proposal, which will affect hundreds of thousands of people, formed 
part of a largely hostile government response to an independent report by 
the Police Foundation calling for reform of Britain's drugs laws. Although 
the Government rejected recommendations to lower the drug classification of 
cannabis, ecstasy and LSD, its willingness to change the law on cautioning 
was welcomed by drugs advice groups.

Mike Goodman, director of Release, said: "This has been a big problem. We 
have had cases where people have said they have not got a criminal record 
but employers have done a police search and the caution has come up.

"Cautions were never intended to have the same status as criminal 
convictions but the reality is that people have to declare them because of 
the way questions for job interviews and visa applications are framed."

In its response to the Police Foundation report, the Home Office said: "The 
Government have accepted that there is a ... problem relating to the stigma 
attached to possessing a caution; for example when asked to confirm the 
existence of a criminal record by a prospective employer. We have consulted 
on proposals to apply the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 
1974 to cautions on the basis that they should become spent immediately."

The Home Office said itwas seeking a "suitable legislative vehicle" to 
introduce the change.

More than 89,000 people were convicted of possessing cannabis in 1998, the 
most recent year for which figures are available. Of these, 54 per cent 
were given a caution at the discretion of the arresting police officer.

In 1999, 266,000 people received cautions for a variety of criminal 
offences. Under the current system, cautions remain on the police national 
computer for five years and can be used by the courts in sentencing for 
further offences for three years.

The proposed changes would still allow the courts to consider previous 
cautions when sentencing but would remove the obligation on individuals to 
declare the offences to employers and officials.

People seeking a career in the law or in the police or prison services will 
still be required to declare cautions, although they will not automatically 
be barred from employment.

Viscountess Runciman of Doxford, lead author of the Police Foundation 
report, said she was pleased the Government had recognised the importance 
of removing the stigma from cannabis cautions, but was "disappointed" that 
ministers had rejected most of its 81 recommendations, including the 
removal of custodial sentences for cannabis, ecstasy and LSD possession.
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