10 February 2009

Last twist of cannabis reclassification travesty

In the last post on cannabis reclassification it appeared that there would be a delay before Penalty Notice Orders (PNDs) for cannabis possession were introduced.

The Statutory Instrument that would have brought PNDs in for a variety of offences had been scheduled for introduction on the 26th January 2009 but, faced with a rising chorus of opposition from bodies such as the Magistrates Association, the introduction was suspended.

This was to allow the Ministry of Justice to undertake a proper consultation with stakeholders about the offences covered, something that, up until this stage hadn't happened.

However, in their desire to introduce PNDs for Cannabis Possession, the Government then decided that consultaton on this specific PND was not actually required and asked the House of Lords to pass a motion introducing PNDs for Cannabis possession.

After a mere fifteen minute discussion on the subject (most of which was of little value) the Motion was passed and, it seems PNDs for cannabis came in to force. The passing of the Lords motion took place on the 26th January 2008 between 7.55 and 8.20pm. Two Lords spoke. The Motion was then passed. This it seems was all that was required to bring the PND in to force.

The record of the debate is here

Ironically, Lord Bach, proposing the Motion for the Ministry of Justice had the temerity to assert "The proposal that cannabis possession should be added to the penalty notice for disorder scheme was made public last October. We believe that there has been plenty of opportunity for people to comment on it."

This is a laughable assertion. There was no formal consultation on the subject despite the fact that Home Office had previously assured that there would be a consultation. There was a complete failure to consult. We asked the Ministry of Justice in November 2008 when the consultation would take place. In January 2009, two weeks before the motion was passed we finally received a reply from the Ministry of Justice, letting us know that no formal consultation would be taking place.

If Lord Bach therefore truly believes that this represented "plenty of opportunity for people to comment on it," then there is something truly rotten within the MoJ.

Further it seems that while other less serious offences being considered for PNDs are now on hold, pending consultation, one of the most serious, cannabis use, is not considered worthy of consultation or proper debate and has been fast-tracked for political expediency.

While it seems almost certain that PNDs for cannabis have come in to force, we are double checking this; while ACPO and the Home Office have released guidance, information and resources which state that PNDs can now be issued, there may still be some confusion. Certainly two days after the Lords Motion on the subject, Maria Eagle MP, providing a written answer said "When, penalty notices for disorder become available for the offence of possessing cannabis, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will issue guidance under section 6 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 about their issue." (ref)
Which certainly gives the impression that either the Parliamentary Secretary for the Government Equalities Office (!) doesn't have a clue what she is answering questions about OR further action needs to be taken before the PNDs come in to force.

Frankly, who knows? Maybe FRANK does? But in an interesting departure the new information leaflet on cannabis reclassification comes not with FRANK's usual happy banter and warm graphics. Instead there's a formal HM Government/ACPO document (see
here) which explains the changes in fairly formal terms.

Given the millions being spent on Frank it seems a little strange that the vehicle for publicising the change would be such a utilitarian one. It could be that given that the move to reclassify cannabis is not popular with young people, there is an attempt to "insulate" Frank from negative associations by creating the illusion that this is something that the Government is doing and nothing to do with avuncular, independent Frank. Alternatively it could be that in the current financial climate there wasn't enough time or money for a swarm of designers to make the document look hip.

All this confusion should come as no suprise. It's the tail end of the actions of a home secretary who first decided to ignore the guidance of the ACMD and push ahead with reclassification, who decided to pursue PNDs for cannabis possession without consulting, and then decided to push through the required legislation by sidestepping the elected houe and getting the Lords to do it late in to the evening. So much for evidence based policy. So much for consultation. So much for democracy.

The ACPO guidance is here

The Home Office FAQs are here

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