28 January 2007

ACPO on Cannabis?!

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) drew up new guidelines on the policing of cannabis in November 2006 which saw the light of day at the end of January.

This guidance was published following an ACPO review of cannabis policing. Hopefully it was also influenced by the recent JRF review of cannabis policing, but this is not necessarily borne out by the content of the revised guidance.

And if people were confused by the policing of cannabis before the review, the new guidance will convince people that they have toked on something especially potent.

One of the key changes is that the new guidance instructs a very clear "three strikes" policy. All 'cannabis warnings' issued are meant to be recorded on a force-wide basis. If a person has already received two 'cannabis warnings,' the ACPO guidance says that a third warning should not be given, but more formal action such as arrest and charge should be undertaken.

This change will be heavily dependent on accurate record keeping, and will require expenditure on record keeping. It will also mean that, unless police are able to verify a person's identity, it will a hit-and-miss process to enforce.

The other key change affects Under-18s. In the previous guidance, police had been instructed to arrest under-18s for cannabis possession. But in the revised guidance, this position has been reversed - police are now instructed NOT to arrest young people for cannabis offences unless there are other aggravating factors.

While, on the face of it, this represents a liberalisation of policing, it is in reality a cosmetic change. Young people will still be dealt with under the Crime and Disorder Legislation, resulting in a reprimand, warning or charge. This processing must take place at a Police Station so while the young person may not initially be arrested, subsquent action will take place in a Police Station.

It is essential that under 18s realise that while they will probably no longer be arrested, they will still end up engaged with the criminal justice system, and liable to getting a criminal record.

The release of the ACPO guidance coincides with publication of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on policing cannabis.

This piece of work reviewed the impact of cannabis reclassification on police and users.

It highlights that significant numbers of people are still being arrested for cannabis and that the policing of cannabis was variable - with street warning been used for betwen 22% and 42% of cannabis incidents. Given that the presumption should be against arrest, it is clear that arresting users is still the norm, not the exception.

The JRF report also notes that Black and other Minority Ethnic groups were more often given street warnings. This suggests that racial profiling plays a role both in who is searched, and also who is warned.

The report notes that almost half of police officers interviewed wanted to be able to give street warnings to Under-18s when the situation warranted it.

And finally the report notes that, as cannabis warnings could be counted as "sanction detections," there was evidence that senior police officers may use "street warnings" as a quick and easy way of bumping up detection figures.

The new ACPO guidance does address some of these concerns. Under 18s will not automatically be arrested, but they will still be criminalised; police officers are reminded not to arrest unless it is necessary, but this will still be at the discretion of officers; and police forces can count these as sanctions detected, although of course no force would be so craven as to use this as a way of improving crime figures for Home Office statistics.

Would they!

ACPO Guidance at:
JRF Report at:

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