17 October 2006

The End of the Road for the Cannabis Policing 'experiment?

It seems likely that before the end of the year, the current cannabis policing policy will come to a grinding halt. Given a combination of factors, it seems almost inevitable that the current policy will be abandoned. This will not, unfortunately, be due to evidence that the policy has 'failed,' but rather due to a combination of media pressure, political ineptitude and circumstances.

The political climate:

The political demise of David Blunkett leaves the way clear for John Reid to change the way cannabis is policed. That Blunkett has now revealed the extent to which his performance was impaired by his social problems means that his decision making is now easy for others to question and overturn.

Likewise, Charles Clarke's decision to follow the ACMDs recomendations was a close run thing; it was made whilst the Home Secretary simultaneously promised a review of the whole classification system.

The Home Office's rejection of the review undertaken by the Science and Technology committee, which looked at the drugs classification system, suggests that the Home Office will not reclassify cannabis to B, but will also not change the overall classification system.

Media Pressure:

The media have frothed themselves in to a righteous indignation about cannabis and currently sense blood. The murder of Steven Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, the killing of Paul Butterworth in St Albans by Laurie Draper, the ongoing campaign against 'skunk farms' run by 'Vietnamese Gangs,' have all contributed to a febrile atmosphere and intense pressure on an underperforming Home Office. The Government needs a way out, and the media knows that they are kicking against a door which is ready to swing open.

Police Review:

ACPO is currently reviewing the policing of cannabis including the current guidance; this review (it is claimed) had been planned for a while and is not a response to current political or media pressure. But given current criticism pressure is going to be intense for a change to the current police guidance. Certainly, the outcome to date has been a lottery of enforcement and this has meant huge variation as to how cannabis has been policed.

Legal Review:

The Judicial Review, which has been sought by Christian fundamentalist George Hargreaves, is set to challenge the current ACPO guidance. He is not seeking (we understand) to review the reclassification of cannabis, rather the ACPO policing guidance. It has to be said that such a review may well find against the ACPO guidance, suggesting that the decision not to enforce the law as a matter of policy is ultra vires but this will remain to be seen. But it also increases the chances that ACPO and/or the Home Office may decide to change policy prior to a court result to avoid the embarassment of a court result going against ACPO.

In conclusion:

When cannabis was originally to be reclassified, it should have simply moved to class C, and as such the power of arrest would have been removed. Blunkett, in a furious backpedal under media and police pressure, had PACE amended to make sure that the power of arrest for cannabis was retained, and tried to fudge this decision by getting ACPO to draft guidance to ensure a presumption against arrest. This fudge, which was an inelegant and ill-considered approach, is now under review with ACPO, under sustained media pressure and the subject of judicial review. Blair, Reid, Clarke and others have already indicated that they would like to to see the reclassification reversed.

In light of this, it seems almost inevitable that the current policing arrangement will be ended. However, we do not think that cannabis will move back to Class B. To do so would be for the Home Office to reject outright the advice of the ACMD. This would be a huge step. But the need to re-reclassify would largely be irrelevant if the current policing policy were to be abandoned.


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