26 January 2009

To B or not to B - the chaos of Cannabis Re-reclassification

Cannabis moves back to B while everyone tries to work out how policing will now work

On the 26/1/09 Cannabis moved back to Class B. To accompany this move, new policing strategy and guidelines should have also come in to force, which included a series of escalating penalties for cannabis possession. This should have included the introduction of Penalty Notice for Disorder (PNDs) for second offences of Cannabis Possession.

However, as with every other aspect of cannabis policy, the reclassification has ended in farce, confusion and recrimination.

As we previously reported, the proposal to introduce PNDs has had to be postponed as the spectrum of offences to be covered by PNDs has met with the disapproval of the Magistrates Association, amongst others.

So PNDs will not now be introduced until the Ministry of Justice has undertaken a proper consultation on the subject, something that as early as last week they maintained was neither required or possible.

As a result of this, PNDs for cannabis possession will not now come in to force at the same time as cannabis moves back to Class B.

At present, neither ACPO nor the Home Office has indicated how cannabis should be policed in the meantime. It is likely that the existing regime - of two cannabis warnings at most followed by arrest - is the most likely course of action. This would mean that, in the short term at least, the move back to Class B would have no meaningful impact on cannabis possession.

The media coverage of the reclassfication today has been as confused as the reclassification itself. Interviewed on the Today programme, John Fassenfelt of the Magistrates Association railed against the way reclassification had been conducted. He argued that cannabis was, illogically, being treated differently to other class B drugs and that the power of magistrates to look at cases was being circumvented by the decision to allow PNDs for cannabis possession. He somewhat undermined his case by being unable to think of another Class B drug, but the principle remains.

However, the most poor performance came from the woefully underprepared Home Office Minister Alan Campbell. He was challlenged on why cannabis should be treated differently to other Class B drugs - and be the subject of PNDs when other drugs weren't. One of the reasons he offered was that each drugs really should be treated on its own merits and that, even within Classes drugs should not be treated the same. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty damning indictment of the current classification system.

However, the most laughable suggestion as to why cannabis should be policed and treated differently was that cannabis was easier to identify in the street (unlike other Class B drugs such as Amphetamine) and so could be handled differently as nothing needed to be sent off for analysis. Presumably, the same bizarre logic could be applied to a host of other drugs, such as Magic Mushrooms.

Unfortunately, Campbell wasn't pushed as to why the Home Office and MoJ had botched the introduction of PNDs quite so badly. So instead he spent a lot of time stressing that the first option available to Police Officers was to arrest and charge, and that they had the discretion to use other interventions.

This was somewhat disingenuous as ACPO guidance on cannabis to date has stressed a presumption against arrest. Further, the onus has been on the police to demonstrate that an arrest was warranted as opposed to it being an approved intervention in all cases.

So at present, cannabis has moved from Class C to B, with no guidance to explain how it will be policed in the short term, and uncertainty as to how the rollout of PNDs will take place now. Now that's what you could call sending out clear messages about cannabis!

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