23 June 2003

Blunkett leaves UK drugs policy on disarray (again!).

A series of leaks and ad hoc policy decision, fuelled by sloppy reporting in the Sunday papers, have left the UK's drug policy in confusion once again. Having effectively killed off the prospects of extended diamorphine prescribing last week with their restrictive "guidance" document, the Government created further confusion over cannabis and premises legislation.

Since Blunkett first announced his intention to reclassify cannabis, the process has been mired in confusion and incompetence. The simplest move would have been to move cannabis to Class C, and make possession of it a non-arrestable offence but leaving supply an arrestable offence.

But rather than adopting this approach, the Home Secretary, either for personal reasons or under pressure from senior Police Officers, decided it was important that the power of arrest was retained, and so went through a series of half-thought through measures to achieve this.

Sine then, a variety of measures have been proposed: there was a proposal to create a three-strikes and your nicked approach to cannabis policing. Given that such an approach would have required a rather substantial data-base, such a plan seems to have been quietly dropped.

The second approach was to make cannabis possession an arrestable offence in certain limited settings, described as "aggravated possession." This included the notorious "blowing smoke in a police officers face" and other similar situations.

But the bottom line, as incorporated in to the Criminal Justice Act 2002 simply makes unlawful possession of Class C drugs an arrestable offence:

9 Power of arrest for possession of Class C drugs

In Schedule 1A to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (c. 60) (specific offences which are arrestable offences), after paragraph 6 there is inserted—
“Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
6A An offence under section 5(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (c. 38) (having possession of a controlled drug) in respect of a Class C drug (within the meaning of that Act).”

No reference to aggravated possession, no reference just to cannabis. The Government proposal is to issue guidance, agreed with ACPO, on when and where people should be arrested but this will only be guidance. Ultimately, local forces and ultimately individual officers will have personal discretion as to when they choose to arrest.

Effectively, the reclassification of cannabis, in practice, simply means that the maximum penalties for possession have been reduced; it will remain an arrestable offence and the penalties for supply will remain the same as they were for Class B drugs - 14 years.

To make matters worse, unable to reach decision about how to implement the revised strategy, it is now being proposed that the reclassification of cannabis be delayed until autumn at the earliest. Young people, already labouring under the misaprehension that cannabis is either now legal or will be from July, are going to be further confused.

This mess is entirely of Blunkett's making. It stems from a premature announcement of the decision to reclassify, before the details had been worked out, followed by a craven retreat from the decision as he came under pressure from the police and the media.

Use on premises:
A series of leaks and reports in the papers caused a flurry of concern that the Home Office wanted to widen the proposed powers incorporated into the Anti-social Behaviour Bill 2003. The legislation proposes creating new powers to close premises where premises are associated with the use or supply of class A drugs and also with nuisance or serious disorder.

It was widely reported that the Home Secretary wanted to extend this power to cover Class B and C drugs too. This is something we were concerned would happen when the legislation was first proposed, and it was a relief to see no such amendment was made when the Bill was discussed at committee stage. Again, the driving force behind this seems to have been the Home Secretary, being advised and pressured by unknown sources.

Further confusion is being caused by the current state of play regarding the status of Section 8(d) of the MDA; it is not clear either to the field or to the Home Office, whether organisations still have an obligation to prevent the smoking of cannabis on premises that they manage.

Under changes to the sentencing for class C drugs offences, organisations who allow cannabis smoking post reclassification (or indeed supply of Valium!) will face a maximum of fourteen years in prison. But first clarification is needed as to whether or not 8(d) is still enforceable at all.

Time for Blunkett to get off drugs!
Given the importance of drugs policy and strategy, it is essential that drug strategy is taken out of Blunkett's inept hands. Since he has taken over primary control over drugs strategy, it has been wholly subsumed by his crime and anti-social behaviour agenda.

Rather than listening to his advisors and those from other departments, he has leant to much of an ear to the police and too little to those who understand the field. It is time for a change in this process and the brief for managing drugs should no longer be left with Mr. Blunkett.

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